As Chief Medical Director at the Sokoto Noma Children’s Hospital in the northwest corner of Nigeria, Dr Shafiu Isah dedicates his days to treating children suffering from a neglected disease that few people have even heard of.

Image/Robert Herriman

Noma is a gangrenous disease that attacks facial tissue and bone. Without treatment, it kills around 90% of its victims, most of whom live in hard-to-reach rural areas, within just a few weeks. “Due to extreme poverty and lack of awareness, unfortunately, a lot of these children die at home without even making it to the hospital,” Dr Isah says, which in turn exacerbates the substantial knowledge gaps regarding this preventable and treatable disease.

In the absence of reliable epidemiological data, a 1998 World Health Organization (WHO) global estimation of 140,000 new cases yearly remains the most widely cited source on noma. The majority of these cases are found in sub-Saharan Africa in children between the ages of two and six.

Even for those who ultimately survive the disease, if not treated immediately, it takes mere days for them to be left with severe facial disfigurements that make it hard to eat, speak, see or breathe. In turn, this often leads to severe stigmatization within their communities and a range of accompanying human rights violations.

“We’ve had cases where when the patient presents to the hospital, the whole of the lower jaw is already gone, or the whole of their nostril pathway is gone,” says Dr Abubakar Abdullahi Bello, Chairman of the Medical Advisory Committee at Sokoto Noma Children’s Hospital.

Read more at the World Health Organization