In 1981, an international group of doctors identified the devastating disease behind a perplexing outbreak of paralysis in northern Mozambique.
Written by Matt Castle • 21 minute read
On 21 August 1981, Australian physician Julie Cliff received the following message on her telex, a print-on-paper precursor to modern text messaging:
“Polio outbreak. Memba District. 38 cases. Reflexes increased.”
The apparently routine message was sent from the Provincial Health Directorate in Nampula, a city in northern Mozambique. Cliff worked in the epidemiology department of the Mozambican Ministry of Health in Maputo, at the southern end of the country. Effective vaccines against poliomyelitis—a food and water-borne infectious disease that can damage nerves and cause paralysis—had been developed in the 1950s and 1960s, eliminating polio from many industrialized countries. However, the disease remained rife throughout sub-Saharan Africa. So the message was unremarkable—except for one thing. In the acute phase of polio, tendon reflexes are not increased. They are absent.
Only a few possible reasons could account for this inconsistency: flawed examination of the patients, a typo in the telex, or some unknown disease process causing an unusual pattern of paralysis in the unfortunate Mozambicans.
Dr. Cliff arrived in Nampula province shortly afterwards as part of a small Health Ministry investigation team, determined to get to the root of the mystery. Typographical errors and poor clinical examination technique were quickly ruled out as possible explanations for the anomaly. Close inspection of affected individuals confirmed the disease was definitely not polio. Yet the question remained: what else could it be?
Only one fictional character has ever been honoured with a front-page obituary in the New York Times: Hercule Poirot, one of Agatha Christie’s two recurring detectives. On 06 August 1975, the headline read, “Hercule Poirot Is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective”. Two months later, the last Poirot mystery – Curtain – was released to the public. Christie, whose life was drawing to a close, had written Curtain in the 1940s as Poirot’s last case and locked it away until she realized that she could not write any more of his mysteries. Christie had long been personally burned out on her famous fictional detective; however due to his popularity, she had refrained from discarding him altogether.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–famed creator of Sherlock Holmes–also tired of his own popular protagonist, once writing “I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards paté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” When Conan Doyle gave in to the temptation to murder the beloved character in 1893, public outrage was so vehement and sustained that the author eventually resumed writing Holmes stories under the pretense that the eccentric detective had merely faked his own death.