African trypanosomiasis

Sleeping sickness


African trypanosomiasis is also known as sleeping sickness and It is a parasitic disease of humans and other animals. There are two types of African trypanosomiasis, East and West, named for the region of Africa in which they were historically found. People can get the disease if they are bitten by an infected tsetse fly, which is only found in rural areas (Africa). Treatment is available for African trypanosomiasis, but it is fatal if left untreated.

Symptoms - African trypanosomiasis

African trypanosomiasis symptoms occur in two stages. The first stage, known as the hemolymphatic phase, is characterized by fever, headaches, joint pains, and itching. Fever is intermittent, with attacks lasting from a day to a week, separated by intervals of a few days to a month or longer. Invasion of the circulatory and lymphatic systems by the parasites is associated with severe swelling of lymph nodes, often to tremendous sizes. Winterbottom's sign, the tell-tale swollen lymph nodes along the back of the neck, may appear. Occasionally, a chancre (red sore) will develop at the location of the tsetse fly bite. If left untreated, the disease overcomes the host's defenses and can cause more extensive damage, broadening symptoms to include anemia, endocrine, cardiac, and kidney dysfunctions.

The second phase of the disease, the neurological phase, begins when the parasite invades the central nervous system by passing through the blood–brain barrier. Disruption of the sleep cycle is a leading symptom of this stage and is the one that gave the disease the name 'sleeping sickness.' Infected individuals experience a disorganized and fragmented 24-hour rhythm of the sleep-wake cycle, resulting in daytime sleep episodes and nighttime periods of wakefulness.

Other neurological symptoms include confusion, tremor, general muscle weakness, hemiparesis, and paralysis of a limb. Parkinson-like movements might arise due to non-specific movement disorders and speech disorders. Individuals may also exhibit psychiatric symptoms such as irritability, psychotic reactions, aggressive behaviour, or apathy which can sometimes dominate the clinical diagnosis. Without treatment, the disease is invariably fatal, with progressive mental deterioration leading to coma, systemic organ failure, and death. An untreated infection with T. b. rhodesiense will cause death within months whereas an untreated infection with T. b. gambiense will cause death after several years. Damage caused in the neurological phase is irreversible.

Causes - African trypanosomiasis

Trypanosoma brucei gambiense accounts for the majority of African trypanosomiasis cases, with humans as the main reservoir needed for the transmission, while Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense is mainly zoonotic, with the occasional human infection. African Trypanosomiasis is dependent on the interaction of the parasite (trypanosome) with the tsetse flies (vector), as well as the host (human for Trypanosoma brucei gambiense, and animals for Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense). The risk of contracting African Trypanosomiasis is dependent on coming in contact with an infected tsetse fly.

Trypanosoma brucei

There are two subspecies of the parasite that are responsible for starting the disease in humans. Trypanosoma brucei gambiense causes the diseases in west and central Africa, whereas Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense has a limited geographical range and is responsible for causing the disease in east and southern Africa. In addition, a third subspecies of the parasite known as Trypanosoma brucei brucei is responsible for affecting animals but not humans.

Humans are the main reservoir for T. b. gambiense but this species can also be found in pigs and other animals. Wild game animals and cattle are the main reservoir of T. b. rhodesiense. These parasites primarily infect individuals in sub-Saharan Africa because that is where the vector (tsetse fly) is located. The two human forms of the disease also vary greatly in intensity. T. b. gambiense causes a chronic condition that can remain in a passive phase for months or years before symptoms emerge and the infection can last about 3 years before death occurs.

T. b. rhodesiense is the acute form of the disease, and death can occur within months since the symptoms emerge within weeks and it is more virulent and faster developing than T. b. gambiense. Furthermore, trypanosomes are surrounded by a coat that is composed of variant surface glycoproteins (VSG). These proteins act to protect the parasite from any lytic factors that are present in human plasma. The host's immune system recognizes the glycoproteins present on the coat of the parasite leading to the production of different antibodies (IgM and IgG).

These antibodies will then act to destroy the parasites that circulate around the blood. However, from the several parasites present in the plasma, a small number of them will experience changes in their surface coats resulting in the formation of new VSGs. Thus, the antibodies produced by the immune system will no longer recognize the parasite leading to proliferation until new antibodies are created to combat the novel VSGs. Eventually the immune system will no longer be able to fight off the parasite due to the constant changes in VSGs and infection will arise.


The tsetse fly (genus Glossina) is a large, brown, biting fly that serves as both a host and vector for the trypanosome parasites. While taking blood from a mammalian host, an infected tsetse fly injects metacyclic trypomastigotes into skin tissue. From the bite, parasites first enter the lymphatic system and then pass into the bloodstream. Inside the mammalian host, they transform into bloodstream trypomastigotes, and are carried to other sites throughout the body, reach other body fluids (e.g., lymph, spinal fluid), and continue to replicate by binary fission.

The entire life cycle of African trypanosomes is represented by extracellular stages. A tsetse fly becomes infected with bloodstream trypomastigotes when taking a blood meal on an infected mammalian host. In the fly's midgut, the parasites transform into procyclic trypomastigotes, multiply by binary fission, leave the midgut, and transform into epimastigotes. The epimastigotes reach the fly's salivary glands and continue multiplication by binary fission.

The entire life cycle of the fly takes about three weeks. In addition to the bite of the tsetse fly, the disease can be transmitted by:

  • Mother-to-child infection: the trypanosome can sometimes cross the placenta and infect the fetus.
  • Laboratories: accidental infections, for example, through the handling of blood of an infected person and organ transplantation, although this is uncommon.
  • Blood transfusion
  • Sexual contact (This may be possible)

Horse-flies (Tabanidae) and stable flies (Muscidae) possibly play a role in transmission of nagana (the animal form of sleeping sickness) and the human disease form.

Prevention - African trypanosomiasis

Currently there are few medically related prevention options for African Trypanosomiasis (i.e. no vaccine exists for immunity). Although the risk of infection from a tsetse fly bite is minor (estimated at less than 0.1%), the use of insect repellants, wearing long-sleeved clothing, avoiding tsetse-dense areas, implementing bush clearance methods and wild game culling are the best options to avoid infection available for local residents of affected areas.

At the 25th ISCTRC (International Scientific Council for Trypanosomiasis Research and Control) in Mombasa, Kenya, in October 1999, the idea of an African-wide initiative to control tsetse and trypanosomiasis populations was discussed. During the 36th summit of the Organization for African Unity in Lome, Togo, in July 2000, a resolution was passed to form the Pan African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign (PATTEC). The campaign works to eradicate the tsetse vector population levels and subsequently the protozoan disease, by use of insecticide-impregnated targets, fly traps, insecticide-treated cattle, ultra-low dose aerial/ground spraying (SAT) of tsetse resting sites and the sterile insect technique (SIT). The use of SIT in Zanzibar proved effective in eliminating the entire population of tsetse flies but was expensive and is relatively impractical to use in many of the endemic countries afflicted with African trypanosomiasis.

Regular active surveillance, involving detection and prompt treatment of new infections, and tsetse fly control is the backbone of the strategy used to control sleeping sickness. Systematic screening of at-risk communities is the best approach, because case-by-case screening is not practical in endemic regions. Systematic screening may be in the form of mobile clinics or fixed screening centres where teams travel daily to areas of high infection rates. Such screening efforts are important because early symptoms are not evident or serious enough to warrant patients with gambiense disease to seek medical attention, particularly in very remote areas. Also, diagnosis of the disease is difficult and health workers may not associate such general symptoms with trypanosomiasis. Systematic screening allows early-stage disease to be detected and treated before the disease progresses, and removes the potential human reservoir. A single case of sexual transmission of West African sleeping sickness has been reported.

Diagnosis - African trypanosomiasis

The gold standard for diagnosis is identification of trypanosomes in a patient sample by microscopic examination. Patient samples that can be used for diagnosis include chancre fluid, lymph node aspirates, blood, bone marrow, and, during the neurological stage, cerebrospinal fluid. Detection of trypanosome-specific antibodies can be used for diagnosis, but the sensitivity and specificity of these methods are too variable to be used alone for clinical diagnosis. Further, seroconversion occurs after the onset of clinical symptoms during a T. b. rhodesiense infection, so is of limited diagnostic use.

Trypanosomes can be detected from patient samples using two different preparations. A wet preparation can be used to look for the motile trypanosomes. Alternatively, a fixed (dried) smear can be stained using Giemsa's or Field's technique and examined under a microscope. Often, the parasite is in relatively low abundance in the sample, so techniques to concentrate the parasites can be used prior to microscopic examination. For blood samples, these include centrifugation followed by examination of the buffy coat; mini anion-exchange/centrifugation; and the quantitative buffy coat (QBC) technique. For other samples, such as spinal fluid, concentration techniques include centrifugation followed by examination of the sediment.[citation needed]

Three serological tests are also available for detection of the parasite: the micro-CATT, wb-CATT, and wb-LATEX. The first uses dried blood, while the other two use whole blood samples. A 2002 study found the wb-CATT to be the most efficient for diagnosis, while the wb-LATEX is a better exam for situations where greater sensitivity is required.

Prognosis - African trypanosomiasis

If untreated, T. b. gambiense almost always results in death, with only a few individuals shown in a long-term 15 year follow-up to have survived after refusing treatment. T. b. rhodesiense, being a more acute and severe form of the disease, is consistently fatal if not treated. Disease progression greatly varies depending on disease form. For individuals which are infected by T. b. gambiense, which accounts for 98% of all of the reported cases, a person can be infected for months or even years without signs or symptoms until the advanced disease stage, where it is too late to be treated successfully. For individuals affected by T. b. rhodesiense, which accounts for 2% of all reported cases, symptoms appear within weeks or months of the infection. Disease progression is rapid and invades the central nervous system and causes death within a short amount of time.

Treatment - African trypanosomiasis

First stage

The current treatment for first-stage disease is intravenous or intramuscular pentamidine for T. b. gambiense or intravenous suramin for T. b. rhodesiense.

Second stage

For T. b. gambiense a regimen involving the combination of nifurtimox and eflornithine, nifurtimox-eflornithine combination treatment (NECT), or eflornithine alone appear to be more effective and result in fewer side effects. These treatments may replace melarsoprol when available with the combination being first line. NECT has the benefit of requiring less injections of eflornithine.

Intravenous melarsoprol was previously the standard treatment for second-stage (neurological phase) disease and is effective for both types. Melarsoprol is the only treatment for second stage T. b. rhodesiense; however, it causes death in 5% of people who take it. Resistance to melarsoprol can occur.

Resources - African trypanosomiasis

Not supplied.
Clinical Trials
No clinical trial found