Part 1: Itchy Infant
As we hiked the trail to Isabukuru Group, I didn’t feel very optimistic. It was my turn to check on Mushya, a 10-month-old infant of a first-time mother. The baby had steadily been losing body condition, and Karisoke trackers now reported that he seemed suddenly weaker and was losing more hair.
Mushya had been born healthy and appeared to thrive during the first few months of his life. Then something changed. He’d nurse, play, and chew on bits of plant material like other infants, but never for very long, and no one ever saw him ride on his mother’s back. He seemed to lack the coordination and strength to do much of anything.
Magda had checked on Mushya twice during the past two months. The trackers and research assistants had also been sending us regular reports. The problem seemed to be developmental and/or nutritional. His mother, Icyizere (ee-che-zare-ree) took good care of him, but her mammary glands were on the small size. We thought maybe she wasn’t producing enough milk. On the other hand, nursing stimulates lactation, and Mushya wasn’t strong enough to nurse for more than a minute at a time.
Compared to other gorilla babies of a similar age, this infant was tiny. When he began losing his hair, the trackers thought it was because Icyizere had to lift and carry him so often. The mother had also lost clumps of hair over both hips, where the infant spent most of his time. At her last check 10 days ago, Magda had noticed that Mushya’s hair coat had become patchy and matted. She’d also caught a glimpse of his gum color. It was pale pink rather than bright pink, another sign of malnutrition or some other severe problem. We’d discussed the case and decided sadly that we couldn’t hold out much hope for Mushya’s survival.
Our interventions are quick in-and-out procedures, and while we can give some follow-up care, we can’t provide intensive nursing care. If Mushya’s condition became life threatening, we would intervene only if we felt he had a treatable disease, and that seemed unlikely. Nor was there a magic drug we could give Icyizere to increase her milk production over time. We can give oxytocin to stimulate the mammary glands right after birth, but that wasn’t the problem. The mother had milk, though perhaps not enough and/or of poor quality.
Some babies born to first-time mothers simply don’t thrive. The reasons, all beyond our control, include poor maternal care, social stress, and food availability. Moreover, if Mushya had been born with a developmental problem, it was either congenital—the result of something that happened at birth that we’d have no way of reversing—or genetic. In the latter case, this infant’s genes were not ones we’d want to see propagated among the gorilla population.
When we reached the group, I was pleasantly surprised to find Mushya looking much brighter than I’d anticipated. We found Icyizere sitting in a clump of vegetation, eating, with the infant in her lap. The mother gorilla grabbed a bunch of thistle with one hand and held onto the baby with the other. The infant stared at me wide-eyed, as gorilla babies often do. When Icyizere turned her body to reach for more food, Mushya ducked out from under her arm and rolled away from her. He grasped playfully at a piece of plant and stuck it in his mouth. But that seemed to be the extent of his energy. He tired instantly, slumping to the ground, and Icyizere pulled him back into her arms.
Except for his attempts at play, I never would have guessed Mushya was 10 months old. Nor have I seen such a sickly looking baby. His arms and legs had no muscle, and he was almost bald on the top of his head. Patches of hair covered the rest of his body. Aside from some flaky skin, he didn’t have any lesions that I could see. As if to allay my concern, he cuddled up to his mother and nursed for a full minute. Though her mammary glands weren’t as large as those of other females’, he didn’t behave as if she didn’t have enough milk. Babies will cry if they’re not getting any calories. Then he opened his mouth, and my worry level shot back up. His gum color was a yellowish pale pink, even more alarming than what Magda had seen.
Ten minutes into the observation period, I noticed something new. Mushya seemed very itchy, or puriritic. Over the course of the next half hour, he scratched his head, his arm, and his back, then pulled a clump of hair from his chest. Had he been stronger, he might have scratched even harder. Icyizere seemed a little itchy, too, although gorillas often scratch themselves as part of the normal grooming process. The difference was that Mushya seemed unable to stop. I could think of only one thing that could make him so itchy, anemic, and bald: mites, also known as mange!
All animals have their own mites, including humans. If our immune systems are working properly, the parasites never multiply or cause health problems. Because of his debilitated condition, Mushya might have an overgrowth of his own mite, the gorilla mite, which has been found to cause illness in a handful of mountain gorillas over the years. Alternatively, he could have a mite that we consider a major threat to free-living gorillas: the human scabies mite. This infection has been documented among mountain gorillas in Uganda, where it caused the death of at least one animal.
Scabies usually affects an entire group of animals, or at least more than one individual; it would be unusual for it to affect a single infant. Quickly I ran through the possibilities. Mushya could be anemic from malnutrition, he could have a problem with his liver or his red blood cell production, he could be suffering from his own mites–or he could have the infectious form of mange. If this were indeed the case, we couldn’t risk letting Mushya’s condition go undiagnosed. The good news is that mites can be treated with an anti-parasitic medicine, ivermectin. And now we had hope that we could help the infant.
I retraced my steps rapidly, my mind made up that we should intervene unless any of our partners felt strongly against it. Isabukuru Group was small, Icyizere was calm, and there were no other infants at risk of injury if we caused a disturbance in the family—always a risk when we intervene. We could take samples from mother and infant, and treat both for presumptive mites. We might be able to help Mushya in the process; at the very least, we might be able to rule out a serious, human-induced disease. Something in his face told me he had the will to live.
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