African Sleeping Sickness

African sleeping sickness is a generic term that applies to two very dreadful diseases that plague sub-Sahara Africa.  Both diseases, officially called African trypanosomiasis, are caused by infestation of a protozoa transmitted by the tsetse fly.  Sixty million people living in 36 African countries are at risk.

One particular strain of protozoa causes Trypanosoma brucei gambiense and another causes Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense.  Both diseases generate similar symptoms in humans but one is chronic while the other is acute and each strain is prevalent in a different geographic region.

Symptoms of African sleeping sickness begin with headaches, joint pains, and fever.  Once infestation has spread to the blood and lymph systems, lymph nodes, notably along the back of the neck, swell.  If left untreated, the disease causes anemia and disease of the kidneys and the cardiac and endocrine systems.

The disease will eventually spread to the brain, causing the neurological symptoms for which the disease is named.  Confusion and impaired coordination lead to an interrupted sleep cycle.  Extreme fatigue and sleeping in the daytime are following by manic periods of insomnia during the night.

These neurological symptoms cause irreversible damage and can progress to the point of mental decline, coma, and eventually to death.

The painful bite of the tsetse fly, which is described as feeling like a hot needle sticking into the flesh, is one way to contract the disease.  Mothers can pass the parasite to their unborn babies and blood transfusions cause other infections.  Laboratory accidents are uncommon but have been known to infect healthcare providers.

There is only one known incident of sexual transmission of African sleeping sickness and this means of transmission is considered almost impossible.  This scenario was, however, the basis of an episode of television’s medical drama, House.

Symptoms of African sleeping sickness are often mild at the onset and resemble other minor ailments so treatment and diagnosis are often delayed until more serious symptoms occur.  The disease often infects people in remote locations where medical care is scarce, if available at all.

There are several effective treatment options for African sleeping sickness and their application depends upon the strain of infection and on the stage of the disease when treatment is sought.

A similar disease, called Chagas disease, occurs in South America and along the coastlines of Central America and Mexico.

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