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January 21, 2019

Breakthrough may end sleeping sickness

TSETSE FLY: It spreads the parasite in human beings and animals. Photo/Courtesy
TSETSE FLY: It spreads the parasite in human beings and animals. Photo/Courtesy

A new method to control the spread of sleeping sickness has been unveiled.

Scientists last week announced that 90 per cent of all acute cases in rural Uganda dropped after more than 500,000 cattle were injected with a cheap drug that successfully killed the parasite before it could harm humans.

The treatment is expected to be introduced in Kenya, where about 11 million people live in places infested with tsetse fly.

However, the rates of human sleeping sickness, also called human trypanosomiasis, are relatively low in Kenya.

Cows act as a host for the disease and also get a form of the sickness called nagana or animal trypanosomiasis.

The new treatment represents a surprising progress against the disease, which is difficult to treat in people and can cause torturous deaths.

Scientists from UK’s University of Edinburgh tested the treatment by giving each cow a single injection of trypanocide. They also carried out regular insecticide spraying to prevent re-infection.

Prof Sue Welburn, the university’s vice-principal, said: “For this neglected disease, treating the infection in cattle, the source of infection to humans offers us a double whammy, healthier people and healthier animals.”

The infection can be transmitted from cattle to humans through the tsetse fly, affecting people like malaria.

“In Kenya, 38 out of 47 counties are infested with the tsetse fly,” Dr Pamela Olet, head of the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council, said. “All the counties in the L. Victoria Basin are at risk; this translates to about 11 million people,” said Olet in an earlier interview.

When the fly bites a person, the parasites enter the blood and multiply. Initially, the victim will have headaches, fever or rashes, but ultimately the parasite will damage the central nervous system, causing sleep disturbances, confusion, and poor coordination.

The WHO says the disease is fatal if untreated. It hopes to eliminate it as a public health problem by 2020.

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