Story

Democratic Republic of Congo: Cassava and Konzo, the Crippling Disease

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Cassava roots dry on the roof of a house on the outskirts of Kahemba. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Cassava roots dry on the roof of a house on the outskirts of Kahemba. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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Cassava roots dry on the roof of a house on the outskirts of Kahemba, DRC. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Cassava roots dry on the roof of a house on the outskirts of Kahemba. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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Ngolu Kulemfuka retrieves cassava roots that have been soaking in a stream outside of Kahemba. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Ngolu Kulemfuka retrieves cassava roots that have been soaking in a stream outside of Kahemba. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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Ngolu Kulemfuka (left) and a friend tend to a small plot of land where they try and grow other types of vegetables. The soil makes it difficult for anything other than cassava to grow. Image by Neil Brandvold DRC, 2016.

Ngolu Kulemfuka (left) and a friend tend to a small plot of land where they try and grow other types of vegetables. The soil makes it difficult for anything other than cassava to grow. Image by Neil Brandvold DRC, 2016.

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Olga, 30, with her 3 year old daughter Odile in Kahemba. Roughly a year ago Odile stopped moving her legs, Olga is not sure why she became paralyzed but had been feeding her a diet consisting largely of various forms of cassava. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Olga, 30, with her 3 year old daughter Odile in Kahemba. Roughly a year ago Odile stopped moving her legs, Olga is not sure why she became paralyzed but had been feeding her a diet consisting largely of various forms of cassava. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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Kumisa Kadogo, 16, is the third child in his family to have Konzo, his family was unaware of the dangers of eating underprepared Cassava. He suffers from a lot of pain in his ribs and back as well and relies on a stick to walk, but cannot walk far distances because of the pain. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Kumisa Kadogo, 16, is the third child in his family to have Konzo, his family was unaware of the dangers of eating underprepared Cassava. He suffers from a lot of pain in his ribs and back as well and relies on a stick to walk, but cannot walk far distances because of the pain. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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Mary Kinduku, 7, has paralysis in both legs from Konzo. She is taken care of by her grandmother Evelyn Matondo who also has Konzo and has not been able to walk for the last 6 years. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Mary Kinduku, 7, has paralysis in both legs from Konzo. She is taken care of by her grandmother Evelyn Matondo who also has Konzo and has not been able to walk for the last 6 years. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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Again Kakene, 18, has had Konzo since 2002 and relies on wooden blocks to drag himself to the market and visit friends. He is the only one in his family with Konzo. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Again Kakene, 18, has had Konzo since 2002 and relies on wooden blocks to drag himself to the market and visit friends. He is the only one in his family with Konzo. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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A relative of Etienne and his families prepares cassava for the family each night. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

A relative of Etienne and his families prepares cassava for the family each night. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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A young girl stands on a street in downtown Kahebma in the early morning. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

A young girl stands on a street in downtown Kahebma in the early morning. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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Cassava is dried and sold alongside the roads outside of Kahemba. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Cassava is dried and sold alongside the roads outside of Kahemba. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

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A young girl sells cassava leaves; much of the economy is dependent on the sale of various forms of cassava. Image  by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

A young girl sells cassava leaves; much of the economy is dependent on the sale of various forms of cassava. Image by Neil Brandvold. DRC, 2016.

Little known in the West, the paralytic disease konzo has inflicted polio-life symptoms on thousands of the most impoverished people in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other African countries.

Eating insufficiently processed cassava, which naturally contains cyanide, can lead to irreversible paralysis of the legs. Konzo leaves its victims dependent on others for their livelihood and forces them to use makeshift crutches or crawl in the dirt.

Science journalist Amy Maxmen and photographer Neil Brandvold traveled to the DRC this summer to document konzo’s toll and what might be done to stem the disease. Maxmen interviewed dozens of people affected by the disease and as well as researchers like Desire Tshala-Katumbay, a Congolese researcher with the Oregon Health & Science University who has studied konzo extensively.

• Part I: Desire’s Antidote to Poison,” describes konzo’s origins and impact, and Desiré’s efforts to raise awareness about the disease

• Part II, "A Real Love Story," to be published on October 6, will discuss what life is like with konzo through a love story.

• Part III, "The Warning Clock," will explore what it will take to end konzo—and how it is inextricably intertwined with the fight against poverty

• The Bitter Harvest photo gallery features images that Neil captured from DRC, revealing the terrible impact that konzo has had on many lives, and cassava's important role in the region

Please see also last year’s GHN coverage of mycetoma, The Most Neglected Disease, which was selected as the 2015 Untold Global Health Story.