Guam’s Mystery Diseases
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GUAM
SHE had suspected it. Still, the doctor’s words hit hard. “All our tests seem to confirm that your father has lytico and bodig.” She knew that both are terminal.
Guam has the highest incidence of these diseases in the world, many times higher than the United States. But what are these dreaded diseases that will eventually take the life of this woman’s father? What causes them? And what can she do to make his remaining time bearable?
What Are Lytico and Bodig?
Both lytico and bodig are degenerative diseases of the neuromuscular system. Lytico is known in the medical world as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. When the famous New York Yankee baseball player Lou Gehrig died of this disease in 1941, it became known by his name. Lytico is the local name for ALS.
ALS affects the motor neurons and nerves in the spinal cord. The muscles of the hands, legs, and throat slowly and steadily become paralyzed. Yet, for a time, ability to feel, as well as reproductive ability and urinary-rectal control, function well. Indeed, a number of children have been born to ALS patients. One woman gave birth to six normal children during the 14 years she suffered with ALS before her death at the age of 43. However, during the advanced stages of ALS, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, or respiratory insufficiency will lead to death. ALS appears most frequently in adults between 35 and 60 years of age. In Guam the youngest victim was a 19-year-old woman.
Bodig is the local term for atrophy of the brain. Medically called Parkinsonism-dementia (PD), it is described as a combination of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Either the Parkinson’s symptoms (slow movements, muscular rigidity, tremors) or the mental changes (memory loss, disorientation, personality changes) may begin first. At times, the symptoms of both diseases appear together. In advanced stages, the patient develops bedsores, incontinence of urine and feces, osteoporosis, fractures of bones, and anemia and finally succumbs to infections.
Lytico and bodig are considered to be two diseases. However, research has led some to believe that they are one disease with different expressions of symptoms.
The Mystery Deepens
Among major questions being researched are the following: (1) Why is it that 98 percent of the victims of ALS and PD in the Mariana Islands are pure Chamorro and the remaining few are long-term Filipino residents? (2) Why are the only other areas of high incidence located at other places at the same longitude? (3) Why should a number of victims in the Mariana Islands have both ALS and PD, whereas patients elsewhere have only one or the other? (4) How does concentrated aluminum find its way into the central nervous system of these victims? (5) Why is little zinc found in the brain cells where there is a high level of aluminum? Environmental studies in the high incidence areas of the western Pacific showed high levels of aluminum, manganese, and iron but low amounts of calcium, magnesium, and zinc in the soil and water.
Trying to Unravel the Mystery
For many years researchers in Guam, Japan, and Canada have tried to unravel the facts about these mystery diseases. In several theories advanced by these research teams, different agents are cited: a rare genetic factor, a slow virus infection, and chronic trace metal poisoning.
A pharmacologist has claimed that as little as two to three milligrams of aluminum in the brain cells can disrupt the brain’s normal function. Aside from the soil and water, aluminum compounds in large quantities have been added to baking powders, cake and pancake mixes, self-rising flour, frozen dough, some antacids, deodorants, and hemorrhoid preparations. Also contributing are aluminum wraps and cookware, for aluminum is leached out, especially when acidic or alkaline foods are cooked in them.
Dr. Kwang-Ming Chen, a neurologist and authority on these rare diseases, stated: “Extensive studies conducted by the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Diseases and Stroke (NINCDS) over [the] past 30 years have not quite unravelled the mystery of the remarkably high incidence and the cause of these most devastating and elusive diseases of the central nervous system (CNS) known to mankind.” However, he indicated that chronic trace metal poisoning has far more credence than a rare genetic factor or a slow virus infection. Research is still continuing. Until an answer is found, all that one can do is try to cope with the problems and be of the greatest assistance possible to the afflicted.
What to Expect and How to Cope
Although frightened and sad when they learned the diagnosis, the families interviewed in Guam said their attitude was one of acceptance. They knew there was no cure.
Great frustration and despair are experienced by both the patient and his family. When asked what caused him the most distress, one PD victim said: “Not being able to speak plainly and move around the house frustrates me.” Personality changes and lapses of memory make it hard for the family to cope. Bedsores and incontinence of urine and feces make care more difficult. Because the ALS patient is mentally alert, his attitude is generally more cooperative, but he is entirely helpless in the advanced stages of the disease.
A suction pump is often needed to help clear the throat of the ALS or PD patient. Food must be soft, and small spoonfuls must be placed deep in the throat to prevent choking. Oxygen is needed when breathing becomes labored.
Physical therapy, control of infection, and emotional support are all provided by the Home Care Service Agency. Among other necessities, the Guam Lytico and Bodig Association provides braces, splints, surgical beds and mattresses, wheelchairs, and bedpans. Since 1970, PD patients have been treated with L-dopa, which loosens muscle rigidity and improves slow movements. Unfortunately, there is no effective medicine for the dementia or for ALS patients.
Close family cooperation has usually been outstanding when these illnesses strike. One woman who lost her father, a sister, and six other members of her family to either ALS or PD commended her family, saying: “They were all good to help.” And speaking with fond remembrance of the help from her ill sister’s husband, she said: “He showed such great love! Every day he put her in a wheelchair and took her for a walk.”
One woman chose to remain single for many years to take care of her mother. Her family had already lost three members because of ALS, and others began to manifest symptoms. Another woman, totally paralyzed for over 24 years, had three daughters, and two of them quit school in order to give their mother comprehensive care. She was turned from side to side at 30-minute intervals day and night. Because of the demands of constant care, some families have found it necessary to put patients in hospitals where a trained staff can supply their needs.
Families that have successfully coped with ALS and PD offer these suggestions: Be loving but firm. Do not show impatience or expect too much from the patient. Have faith in God. Pray often. Arrange some private periods for family members who spend the most time with the patient. Take the patient on outings at times and help him to attend village or social functions. Do not be ashamed of having a patient in the family. And encourage children, grandchildren, and friends to visit, for victims are often lonely.
While medical science has not found a definite explanation for these diseases, there is hope for both the stricken ones and their families. The Bible shows that soon, in God’s new world, all disease, pain, and death will be eliminated forever. Instead, there will be perfection of mind and body, with everlasting life in view. Even dead loved ones will be resurrected to life on earth. Please read God’s Word, the Bible, to an ailing loved one so that he can learn about the marvelous hope ahead.—Psalm 37:11, 29; Isaiah 33:24; 35:5-7; Acts 24:15; Revelation 21:3-5.
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Family members find it a challenge to cope with terminal illnesses such as these