African Sleeping Sickness
What is African sleeping sickness?
African sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis) is a disease caused by a parasite.
It is passed on by the bite of the infected tsetse fly.
What causes African sleeping sickness?
There are 2 types of the disease. They are named for the areas of Africa where they
are found. West African sleeping sickness is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma brucei
gambiense. This long-term (chronic) infection can last for years. East African sleeping
sickness is caused by Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense. It’s a short-term (acute) illness
that may last several weeks to months.
People from the U.S. who travel to Africa are rarely infected. On average, 1 U.S.
citizen is infected every year. The person is typically infected in East African game
Who is at risk for African sleeping sickness?
The only people at risk for African sleeping sickness are those to travel to Africa.
That’s where the tsetse fly is found. The parasites that cause the disease are passed
on only by the tsetse fly.
The tsetse flies live only in rural areas. They live in woodland thickets of the savanna
and dense vegetation along streams. Visitors to cities and other urban areas are usually
not at risk. The disease is found mainly in tropical Africa. The greatest risk of
getting it is in:
- Central African Republic
- Democratic Republic of Congo
What are the symptoms of African sleeping sickness?
Tsetse fly bites can be quite painful. Travelers often recall being bitten. A painful
sore often shows up at the site of the bite within a week or so. It’s called a chancre.
Each person may have slightly different symptoms. But symptoms tend to happen within
1 to 4 weeks of infection. At first, they may include fever, skin lesions, rash, swelling,
or swollen lymph nodes on the back of the neck. After many weeks, the infection may
become meningoencephalitis. This is an infection of the brain and the fluid surrounding
the brain and spinal cord. As the illness gets worse, symptoms may include:
- Severe headache
- Personality change
- Weight loss
- Loss of concentration
- Progressive confusion
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty walking and talking
- Sleeping for long periods of the day
- Insomnia at night
If left untreated, death will occur within several weeks to months. The symptoms of
African sleeping sickness may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare
provider for a diagnosis.
How is African sleeping sickness diagnosed?
See a healthcare provider as soon as possible if you think you are infected. Tests
can find the parasite. These tests may include blood samples and a spinal tap (lumbar
puncture). Your provider may also take a sample of chancre fluid or tissue, or fluid
from swollen lymph nodes.
How is African sleeping sickness treated?
Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on:
- How old you are
- Your overall health and past health
- How sick you are
- How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
- How long the condition is expected to last
- Your opinion or preference
Medicine is available to treat the disease. You will need to stay in the hospital.
After you go home, you will need follow-up exams for about 2 years. These will include
a spinal tap. Because this infection is so rare, your healthcare provider may talk
with an infectious disease or tropical medicine specialist.
What are the complications of African sleeping sickness?
If the disease is not treated, the symptoms can worsen to a severe illness. Death
Can African sleeping sickness be prevented?
No vaccine or medicine can prevent African sleeping sickness. But you can avoid being
bitten by tsetse flies. Experts recommend the following:
- Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and pants. Tsetse flies can
bite through material, so clothing should be made of thick fabric.
- Wear khaki, olive, or other neutral-colored clothing. Tsetse flies are attracted to
bright and dark contrasting colors.
- Use bed nets when sleeping.
- Look inside vehicles for tsetse flies before getting into them.
- Do not ride in the back of jeeps, pickup trucks, or other open vehicles. Tsetse flies
are attracted to the dust created by moving vehicles and animals.
- Stay away from bushes. During the hottest part of the day, the tsetse fly will rest
in bushes. But they will bite if disturbed.
Living with African sleeping sickness
Be sure to follow your healthcare provider’s directions. You will need to be checked
out periodically for at least a couple years.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
If you have a fever, rash, or chancre (ulceration of the skin) after returning from
areas in Africa where you may have been bitten by a tsetse fly, contact your healthcare
- African sleeping sickness is a disease caused by a parasite. It is passed on by the
bite of the infected tsetse fly.
- The only risk factor is travel to parts of Africa where the tsetse fly is found.
- The only way to prevent the disease is to avoid insect bites.
- Medicine is available to treat it.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.