What Causes African Sleeping Sickness?

by on March 7th, 2015
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With a World Health Organization (WHO) estimate of 300,000 to 500,000 people infected – most of them presumed to die within two years, African Sleeping Sickness (African Trypanosomiasis) affects people in 36 Sub-Saharan countries in Africa.

What Causes African Sleeping Sickness?

African Sleeping Sickness, also known as African Trypanosomiasis, is a unicellular parasite transmitted to humans via the bite of certain species of tse-tse fly. Due to its strong capacity for developing resistance to drugs, treating and curing African Sleeping Sickness is a challenge. Two other means of transmission of the disease are use of or accidental prick by a needle exposed to the disease, and that of pregnant mother to her fetus.

There are two forms of the disease and they affect different regions of Africa. Trypanosoma brucei gambiense accounts for over 90 percent of African Sleeping Sickness cases and occurs in the western and central regions of Africa.

Less than 10 percent of cases are of the Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense form, which is found in the southern and eastern regions of Africa.

Risk Factors

Only those people living in certain Sub-Saharan African countries with certain species of tse-tse fly are at risk for contracting the disease. Research has shown that those people living in the more rural parts of these regions are more likely to be affected, in part due to weaker or non-existent health systems and poor settings.

Animals may also be infected with African Sleeping Sickness; the disease kills them.


The earlier the disease is diagnosed, the better the prognosis for the patient. There are different treatments for each stage of the disease. Stage One treatments include Pentamidine and Suramin. Stage Two treatments include Eflornithine and Melarsoprol. Some of the treatments are difficult to administer and have undesirable effects. Due to the antigenic nature of the disease, treatment is not a guarantee the patient will be cured.


African Sleeping Sickness. Structural Genomics of Pathogenic Protozoa. http://www.sgpp.org/african_sleeping_sickness.shtml

African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). Fact sheet N*259. Revised August 2006. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs259/en/

African Trypanosomiasis. Parasitic Disease Information. CDC. Last reviewed June 6, 2008 http://www.cdc.gov/Ncidod/dpd/parasites/trypanosomiasis/default.htm

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