In General Knowledge, Health

What Is Sleeping Sickness?

sleeping sickness

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sleeping sickness is defined as”; microscopic parasites of the species Trypanosoma brucei. It is transmitted by the tsetse fly (Glossina species), which is found only in rural Africa. Although the infection is not found in the United States, historically, it has been a serious public health problem in some regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, about 10,000 new cases each year are reported to the World Health organization; however, it is believed that many cases go undiagnosed and unreported. Sleeping sickness is curable with medication, but is fatal if left untreated.”

African Sleeping Sickness

Sleeping sickness symptoms include being drowsy during the day yet suffering from insomnia at night, changes in mood, headache, fever, sweating, anxiety, weakness and swollen nodules and lymph nodes. Those who reside in America will have no chance of being diagnosed with African Sleeping Sickness, also called trypanosomiasis, unless they have traveled to Africa. The reason for this is that the disease is caused by Tsetse flies, which are not found in America. If an American has never been to Africa and they seem to have African sleeping sickness symptoms they are actually suffering from something else. African Sleeping Sickness is detected by administering cerebrospinal tests, performing a complete blood count and a blood smear. A lymph node aspiration can also be used to diagnose this illness. When a person has been diagnosed with this illness they are given medications such as Suramin, Pentamidine, Melarsoprol and Eflornithine. If this illness is not treated it can kill and individual within six months. Either an infection will set in or and individual will go into cardiac arrest and die.

Preventing African Sleeping Sickness

Natural methods must be used to prevent African Sleeping Sickness because there is no vaccination that can be given to prevent it. Though the best way to prevent the occurrence of this disease is to avoid the fly that carries it, other steps can be taken to prevent it when one is exposed to those flies, including wearing sleeved shirts at all times. Pants that are of medium weight can also be used to avoid direct exposure to the flies. Clothes worn in an area where these flies can be found should be in neutral colors. The more an individual blends in with their background the less likely they are to get bitten by the fly.

Keeping one’s car clean is also a way to prevent catching African Sleeping Sickness. This is because the flies are attracted to dust coming from a moving car. During the hottest times of the day the flies like to hide in bushes, so staying away can help prevent the disease. There are also insecticides and traps to keep the flies away.

Stages of African Sleeping Sickness

There are two stages of this disease. Most people become aware that they have this disease during its first stage. The first stage develops an average of two to three weeks after having been bit. It is not unusual for a very itchy rash to occur during this stage of the disease. Mental confusion is also a common occurrence during stage one. An enlarged liver and spleen is also possible at this time.

Once an individual is in the second stage they generally have slurred speech. At this point in the disease patients have been known to simply stare into space as well. Many of the ailments a patient suffers from are similar to that of Parkinson’s Disease.

Finding A Cure

In March 2014 scientists at Clemson University received a grant to aid in their efforts to find a cure for African Sleeping Sickness. The grant will allow them to study until 2016. One of the goals of this research is to come across metabolic targets that will lead to finding a cure. Another is to develop sensors that will allow doctors to assess the condition of a patient’s cells. It also the goal of this research to be able to go into the parasite where the disease is present and figure out the patient’s glucose and pH levels. Accomplishing these goals will allow for the development of new therapies that can be used to treat patients for the disease. If a cure is found African residents will have a better chance at getting treated for the disease because it is currently hard to receive care due to conflicts within the region.

Medical researchers have been working with pharmaceutical companies to try to treat this disease dating back to the 1920s. The World Health Organization has also been trying to study the disease as well. Back in 2001 the organization announced plans to expand a program dedicated to finding a cure for African Sleeping Sickness. Through the program new medicines are being studied to treat the disease. Clinical trials were run in 2004 to test oral medication for African Sleeping Sickness. This oral medication was determined to have fewer side effects than other medicines used to treat it. Scientists are also searching for a treatment that will work faster than the current ones.

Residents of Africa have been battling with this disease since the 14th century. Screening programs that existed in the 1960s had the disease controlled temporarily, but famine and war put a stop to that.  One of the oldest epidemics of African Sleeping Sicknesslasted from 1986 to 1906. When the second epidemic occurred during the 1920s it had become a serious enough problem that treatment options were heavily explored. Most recently another epidemic of the disease swept through Africa from 1970 to the end of the 1990s.

2009 was the first year that the number of people suffering from this disease decreased rather than increasing. Less than 10,000 cases of the disease were reported that year, which was a number that had not been that low over the course of the previous 50 years. That type of decline continued until as recently as 2012. As of 2012 it was estimated that 20,000 people were actually suffering from this disease, meaning it went unreported in many cases. At that time the number of people at risk for contracting this disease was estimated to be 70,000.


Anyone asking the question “What sickness do I have?” can rest assured that African Sleeping Sickness is likely not the answer unless one has recently been to Africa. The medical community has spent decades searching for a cure for the disease, which can be transmitted from a mother to her unborn child. The only other way to contract this disease is to be stuck with needles contaminated with the disease.

The battle with African Sleeping Sickness will likely continue for the foreseeable future. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation agreed in 2013 to provide the money to the World Health Organization to implement and support strategies for managing one form of this disease. Their national program provides African countries with the medication needed to treat this disease, free of charge. In 2009 the World Health Organization started a program that provides those researching the illness a sperm bank that they can use create new tools for the purpose of diagnosing the disease in patients.

Aside from the creation of diagnostic tools the program also makes diagnosis and treatment of the disease easier to obtain. Supporting the necessary research to help treat and eventually cure this disease is also something the program does. Work will continue with the goal of ensuring that anyone diagnosed with this disease is treated promptly and properly. Only time will tell whether or not the support this program offers to the cause will make great strides in eventually ensuring that no one will suffer from African Sleeping Sickness. Healthcare professionals continue to diligently work on the problem in order to find a resolution for it.

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