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Health | Science - Education

Uganda decries lack of research on sleeping sickness

Trypanosoma brucei parasite in human blood, as sleeping sickness is developing:
«Drugs are old and toxic»

© S Stammers/TDR/WHO/afrol News
afrol News / SciDev.Net, 9 March
- Scientists in Uganda are calling for the international community to take more interest in sleeping sickness and help combat the disease. They say that drugs currently used to treat the disease are old and toxic, and that sleeping sickness warrants a higher research priority because of its threat to health.

The comments were made at a meeting in Kampala, Uganda, this week, organised by the Ugandan Ministries of Health and Agriculture, together with UK-based communication company WRENmedia. Participants discussed the human cost of sleeping sickness and the results of recent studies conducted in northern Uganda.

In Uganda alone over nine million people are at risk of infection from the disease, caused by the parasite Trypanosoma. Yet only 20 percent of these people have access to diagnostic services, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"Long-term failure by the West to help Africa control the spread of tsetse flies - which spread the disease - has resulted in [the flies] multiplying, attacking larger areas and infecting hundreds of thousands of Africans," said Dawson Mbulamberi from the Ugandan Health Ministry.

Mr Mbulamberi and Fred Kansiime, from the Ministry of Agriculture's Coordinating Office for Control of Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), said that once someone contracts sleeping sickness, death is certain without fast diagnosis and treatment.

Abbas Kakembo, a senior field officer in the Kampala Ministry of Health, revealed that over 500,000 people are infected with the disease in Uganda.

"One of the serious constraints is that drugs [available for treating sleeping sickness] are old and toxic, particularly melarsoprol and eflornithine. And in one of the worst-hit areas - Arua District close to DRC [Congo Kinshasa] and South Sudan - 30 percent of those treated had resistance to drugs," he said.

Mr Kakembo added that only five percent of those infected are under surveillance or have access to medical care.

Miriam Nanyunja, a disease prevention and control officer at the WHO, agreed that more should be done to tackle the disease. However, she said the Ugandan Ministry of Agriculture should also take in more responsibilities. Ugandan authorities should more strongly support health experts in efforts to trap tsetse flies and train farmers to cut down bushes where the flies live.

The WHO has indicated that the two main sub-types of the African sleeping sickness parasite - gambiese from West Africa and rhodesiense from Zimbabwe - are likely to overlap in Uganda, making it difficult to diagnose and treat the disease correctly. While the West African variant causes chronic disease among humans, the Southern African type mainly attacks cattle and wild game, but can cause acute infections among humans.

Sleeping sickness or African trypanosomiasis is transmitted by the tsetse fly, which is endemic to the tropical parts of Africa, expect for desert and semi-desert zones. In addition to being a large public health risk in these parts of the continent, it also severely limits livestock production here.

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