Symptoms and Treatment of African Sleeping Sickness

African Trypanosomiasis, better known as Sleeping Sickness, is an infection transmitted to humans by insects. The most serious problems with Sleeping Sickness have been found in Sub-Saharan Africa. The infection can be cured with medical treatment, but failure to seek medial help can lead to fatalities. Around ten thousand new cases are reported each year, but some go undiagnosed. Most cases outside of Africa are seen in people who have travelled to the country and been bitten whilst there.

Sleeping Sickness is transmitted by the Tsetse fly, and this species is only found in the rural parts of Africa. Once bitten by the fly, the infection travels through the blood, leaving a red and painful swelling at the bite spot. The infection can spread to the nervous system and, when this occurs, cause the classic symptoms of Sleeping Sickness.

Symptoms of Sleeping Sickness can include the following and come in two clearly defined versions of the infection.

East African sleeping sickness (T. b. rhodesiense) infection: –

During the first two weeks after infection – Red swollen and sore bite spot which may become ulcerated, headache, muscle and joint pain, rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes’

After the two week period – Increasing neurological problems including headaches, confusion, slurring of speech, mood swings and personality changes, seizures, problems with walking. The classic symptoms of drowsiness and great fatigue will also begin to develop. If untreated this stage can lead to coma and eventual death, likely at around two months post-infection.

West African sleeping sickness (T. b. gambiense) infection: –

The difference between the two versions of sleeping sickness is in the length of time it takes to experience symptoms. West African sleeping sickness is much slower in progression. Initial symptoms may be similar, but less pronounced. There may be an occasional headache, a little soreness in the muscles and joints, slight fevers, sleepiness and, conversely, insomnia, the skin can itch and there may also be evidence of weight loss.

It can take as long as two years for major symptoms to develop. There will be increasing lack of neurological function. Balance, speech and sleep problems are common. There may also be hormone imbalances and paralysis could become a factor. This infection can take up to seven years to become fatal, if left untreated, but the infected person is more likely to die within three years.

African Sleeping Sickness responds well to treatment and it is advisable to seek medical health if there is any suspicion that the infection may be present. Treatment is usually in the form of drugs such as Eflornithine (WA sickness only) or Pentamidine. Patients are required to have cerebrospinal fluid tests for at least two years after the infection is cleared. This is to detect any possible relapse.