WARNING: This Will Give You Nightmares

It sure did me. I was working at the Schweitzer hospital in Africa when a mother brought her two-year-old child to us. Even wrapped in a sheet, it was obvious that he was unnaturally thin, his elbows too pointy, his back too bony. The odd thing was that she had a sheet over his head. He cried weakly and pushed at it every so often, but she kept the sheet in place. This mom didn’t speak, or make eye contact. She wasn’t impatient, like she knew there was nothing anyone could do. She just sat, listless in a chair, waiting for her turn. The other moms, as if they already knew, had edged away from her in the crowded waiting room, leaving a circle of empty chairs around her. I thought for a moment, when I walked to her, that I smelled a whiff of something. A sickly sweet smell – the smell of human decay and rot, the smell of a corpse left in the sun. But surely that wasn’t possible. This kid was moving.

I’d been in Africa for months already. I’d seen things that I thought had hardened me, permanently. I’d seen worms slithering in people, maggots foaming out of a child’s ear, leprosy that ate away limbs – you name it. Nothing could shock me. Or so I thought. She followed me to the exam room. Why did this woman ignore my greeting and carry her child, wordless, as a tear slid down her cheek? What was under that sheet?

It was a nightmare. One you personally can stop from ever destroying another child again. And I’m going to tell you how.

Today is the world’s first ever International Noma Day.

What the heck is noma?

After the woman gently put her child on our thin clinic pallet, I pulled back the sheet. Noma is what I was taught to call what I saw. This child’s face had begun to rot, while he was still alive. A gaping, gangrenous hole had opened at the left corner of his baby mouth and ate away his cheek – it ate all flesh, and then into bones, leaving white skull edges exposed. His upper lip was mostly gone and the hole was now big enough to eat away the end of his nose, leaving sinus holes gaping, coated with a thin layer of pus. The smell, as he exhaled, was enough to make me swallow hard. I was horror-struck, but even worse was the fact that he saw my face, and, like any sweet little kid, I scared him – looking at him like that, and he reached his thin arms up to his mama and his crusty eyes tried to fill with tears and what was left of his mouth tried to distort into a normal cry, tugging at fraying, rotting flesh, part of his tongue was gone and I realized the horror of it all – that he was trapped, hurting, rotting before he was dead and, even though I thought it couldn’t be worse, I saw his poor mother swallow hard and walk around me and reach to stroke his hair. But she didn’t do what all the women in Africa do when their babies cry at the doctor’s – she didn’t offer him her breast. And you could see that she felt horrible for not doing it, but how could she when all that was left of his mouth and face was this living, hurting, horror-struck gangrenous hole? He was bereft.

That, my lovely reader-friends, is the face of noma. That experience, when I cried in Africa in front of this mother and when I weep now even thinking about it again, is why I’m asking everyone to recognize this new, long-overdue cause. I know we’re all disaster-exhausted. I know it’s hard to reach inside for yet one more tug on our tugged-to-the-point-of-breaking heartstrings. But Noma is something that no one, no child, should ever be forced to suffer. It is a horror beyond all horrors. And it’s completely, cheaply preventable.

And, with the price of food skyrocketing, it’s likely to attack more and more children.

Noma, to put it simply, is when there is not enough nutrition and germs overgrow the mouth and the child’s immune system fails under the onslaught without nourishment – the germs start to eat away at the flesh of the person. It begins in the mouth, where we all have lots of germs, and it keeps going through flesh and bone. Usually it is fatal – when the mouth begins to disintegrate, a vicious spiral begins because the child can’t eat. But if it is recognized early and aggressively treated with simple things like vitamins and nutrition and sometimes antibiotics, children can be saved. Even when they’re saved, however, these children are often outcasts – disfigured for life, for no greater sin than not having enough to eat when they were young. Noma is often believed to be a curse, and whole families can be stigmatized. Today, over 100,000 children a year suffer this horror. Noma strikes wherever there is hunger – Asia, South America, and Africa. And yes, noma existed here, both in the United States and Europe, until the last century when we became wealthier nations.

Here’s how you can help. Say no to noma. Noma no more, is what I’d call this campaign. Give a bit – even the cost of one day’s coffee, just $3. Don’t stress about whether it’s enough – anything is good. Go to www.nonoma.org for more info – 100% of proceeds go to direct services. Take a sec to email this story about this desperate cause to 4 friends. And then sleep a little easier knowing you’ve done something important to make the world a better place for the weakest and smallest of us. Noma is a horror that needs be destroyed before it takes the life of another child.

You’ll need $.94 in postage – if you can’t be bothered with the hassle of the post office for exact postage, just splurge and stick three first class stamps on that envelope. Here’s the address for your $3 check

International No-Noma Federation
c/o Winds of Hope Foundation
20, avenue Florimont
CH-1006 Lausanne, Switzerland

P.S. What happened with our little man? He spent his days lying on the cot in tropical heat with an IV in his strapped-to-a-piece-of-cardboard arm. We gave him antibiotics and vitamins and tried to dribble nourishment in what was left of his mouth. It was heartbreaking to watch his mama, patting his head, rocking him in her arms as she dripped silent tears from time to time. And always, always, she covered his face with the edge of the sheet, holding him tight, his temple pressed hard up against her shoulder. The smell grew worse and worse. He couldn’t speak, he had no lips to form words, but his eyes were clear and panic-stricken, right up to the end. He died in less than a week.

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