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The African Sleeping Sickness (African Trypanosomiasis)

African sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis) is a disease caused by a parasite that is passed on by the bite of an infected tsetse fly

There are two types of African trypanosomiasis, and each is named for the region of Africa in which they are found. The disease is caused by a parasite named Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense , and carried by the tsetse fly.

Approximately 25,000 new cases of both East and West African trypanosomiasis are reported to the World Health Organization each year, and many cases are not reported due to a lack of infrastructure and the true number of new cases is undoubtedly much higher.

Since 1967, thirty-six cases of East African trypanosomiasis have been reported within the United States, all involving individuals who had traveled to Africa.

Sleeping sickness is curable with medication but is fatal if left untreated, and people from the U.S. who travel to Africa are rarely infected.


Sleeping sickness is caused by two types of parasites Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense and Trypanosomoa brucei gambiense, with the former causing the more severe form of the illness.

Tsetse flies carry the infection, and when an infected fly bites you, the infection spreads through your blood.

Risk factors include living in parts of Africa where the disease is found and being bitten by carrier tsetse flies.

How Is African Trypanosomiasis Spread?

An individual will get African trypanosomiasis if they are bitten by a tsetse fly infected with the Trypanosoma parasite. The tsetse fly is common only to Africa, and on rare occasions, a pregnant woman may pass the infection to her baby, or an individual may become infected through a blood transfusion or organ transplant.

Symptoms Of African Sleeping Sickness

Tsetse fly bites can be quite painful, and a painful sore (chancre) often shows up at the site of the bite within a week or so.

Each person may have slightly different symptoms, but symptoms tend to happen within 1 to 4 weeks of infection.

At first, symptoms may include fever, skin lesions, rash, swelling, or swollen lymph nodes on the back of the neck, but after many weeks, the infection may become meningoencephalitis.

Meningoencephalitis is an infection of the brain and the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. As the illness progresses, symptoms may include:

  • A severe headache
  • Weight loss
  • Irritability
  • Personality change
  • Loss of concentration
  • Progressive confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Sleeping for long periods of the day
  • Insomnia at night
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty walking and talking
  • If left untreated, death will occur within several weeks to months.

The symptoms of African sleeping sickness may look like other health problems, and you should always see your health care provider for a diagnosis when you are not feeling fine.

If a person fails to receive medical treatment for trypanosomiasis, especially, East African trypanosomiasis, death will occur within several weeks to months. West African trypanosomiasis is also fatal if it is not treated.

Risk Factors For African Sleeping Sickness

The only people at risk for African sleeping sickness are those who travel to Africa, where the tsetse fly is found. The parasites that cause the disease are passed on only by the bite of the tsetse fly.

The tsetse flies live only in rural areas and live in woodland thickets of the savanna and dense vegetation along streams. Visitors to cities and other urban areas are usually not at risk, as the disease is found mainly in tropical Africa. The following places pose the greatest risk of getting it:

  • Angola
  • The central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Congo
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Malawi
  • Tanzania
  • Sudan
  • Uganda
  • Zambia

Treatment For African Sleeping Sickness

The best treatment is based on:

  • Your opinion or preference
  • Age
  • Your overall health and past health
  • Severity of sickness
  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last

Medications are available to treat the disease, and you will need to stay in the hospital. There may be a need for follow-up exams for about 2 years.

Complications Of African Sleeping Sickness

If the disease is not treated, the symptoms can worsen and death will occur.

Prevention Of African Sleeping Sickness

No vaccine or medicine can prevent African sleeping sickness, but you can avoid being bitten by tsetse flies.

  • Wear protective clothing, including long-sleeved shirts and pants, since the tsetse flies can’t bite through thick material or fabrics.
  • Wear olive colored clothing since the tsetse fly is attracted to bright colors and very dark colors.
  • Use insect repellant, and use bed netting when sleeping.
  • Inspect vehicles for tsetse flies before entering, and do not ride in the back of jeeps, pickup trucks or other open vehicles.
  • Avoid bushes, since the tsetse fly rests in bushes but will bite if disturbed.

Be sure to follow your healthcare provider’s directions, and maintain a periodic checkup for at least a couple of years.



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