WHAT IS SLEEPING SICKNESS?
Sleeping sickness is a disease that can be acquired when bitten by a tsetse fly. The tsetse fly is a large biting fly that is found all over the tropical areas of Africa. Notably, in the past 10 years 70% of cases have occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Once bitten by the fly, the parasite can pass into the bloodstream. The parasites can then reproduce in the blood and other areas of the body. The parasite can also be passed from mother to unborn child during pregnancy.
The first symptoms of infection can appear in the days to weeks after the bite. Disease is caused by the parasite interfering with many of the body’s systems. The later symptoms of sleeping sickness come from the parasite entering the skull and interacting with the brain.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF INFECTION?
The early symptoms of infection are:
- Pain around the area of the bite.
- A high fever (raised body temperature).
- Headaches and muscle aches.
- Rash (reddening of the skin).
After symptoms like this appear, further ones develop in the months that follow. Infection can be fatal but only if it is left untreated. These later symptoms include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Memory loss.
HOW CAN WE TREAT IT?
Sleeping sickness is tricky to treat, because it is a complex disease. Thankfully, there are four drugs currently available to treat it. These are: pentamidine, suramin, melarsoprol and eflornithine. These drugs are given to the WHO (World Health Organisation) for free by their manufacturers, and the WHO distributes them for free at the point of access where needed.
HOW CAN WE PREVENT IT?
Sleeping sickness can broadly be prevented by stopping exposure to tsetse flies. There are a number of steps that can be taken to do this.
- Tsetse flies rest in bushes during the day, and when possible it is best to avoid disturbing them.
- To avoid bites when sleeping, sleep under treated insect nets.
- Cover skin if going into areas where tsetse flies are known to be.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF SLEEPING SICKNESS?
Thankfully, there has been a strong effort by communities and organisations to prevent and quickly treat infections. Because of this, the number of cases of sleeping sickness reported has decreased year on year since 1995, which is when records were started by the WHO. If we carry on being strict on prevention and reporting, this trend will surely continue and sleeping sickness will be a disease of the past.