African sleeping sickness

African sleeping sickness is something many Western travellers remain relatively unfamiliar with. However, it is a serious problem in Africa, particularly the sub-Saharan part of the continent. Although a lot of cases are believed to go unreported, estimates that the numbers dying from infection as recently as 2008 were around 48,000 people.

What is African sleeping sickness?

To give it its scientific name, African trypanosomiasis is a disease affecting both humans and animals, caused by a particular type of unicellular creature, or protozoa.These are transmitted from one host to the next by tsetse flies, a species of insect that feeds on the blood of animals or humans. The protozoa are able to adapt according to where they are in their life cycle, morphing as they leave their fly host to enter a mammal’s bloodstream. Tsetse flies are only found in sub-Saharan Africa, and only certain species transmit the disease. Science is still unable to explain why tsetse flies in some areas are unaffected. While this does sound like something from a horror film, the reality is serious.

The majority of people who succumb to the affliction are rural populations – fishermen, farmers, goatherds or hunters.The last major epidemic occurred in 1970, although continued efforts by health agencies are helping to keep it at bay. The fact it occurs in rural areas with limited access to health care make it difficult to keep under adequate surveillance.


People can be infected with African sleeping sickness for months or even years without showing affects. By the time the disease does emerge, it can be advanced, having already got into the central nervous system.

Protection against the disease

The important point to keep in mind is the fact that outbreaks generally occur in remoter villages. But if you are visiting any part of Africa, it would do no harm to seek some advice beforehand. The NHS have helplines providing information about tropical diseases.

The only guaranteed method of escaping infection is to avoid being bitten by tsetse flies; however, there has been encouraging news recently. A new pill is undergoing tests in two countries. According to the head of Drugs for Neglected Disease initiative, Bernard Pecoul: "This is a major step in research and development for neglected tropical diseases".

The tests concern fexinidazole, applied with once-daily tablets for ten days.


The treatment of African sleeping sickness depends on the stage it is at. In its earlier stages it can be countered with drugs which are of lower toxicity. The sooner the diagnosis, the better the prospect of a cure. By its later stages it becomes much more difficult to treat, as stronger drugs are required to attack the parasite.

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