Also known as African trypanosomiasis, sleeping sickness is characterized by the inflammation of the brain and the meninges (3 membranes that envelop the brain and spinal cord). It's a parasitic infection which is caused by two organisms called T. brucei rhodesiense and T. brucei gambiense. Tsetse flies (bloodsucking African fly) are the carriers of these organisms. When an infected fly bites a person, a painful red swelling occurs at the site. Thereafter, the organisms traverse through the bloodstream, thereby causing a series of symptoms.
People who get infected by the T. brucei gambiense, show signs of drowsiness during the daytime. Apart from this, the commonly observed symptoms include fever, severe headaches, and joint pain. As the infection progresses further, it starts affecting the lymphatic system, thereby resulting in swollen lymph nodes. With time, the infection starts overpowering the defense system of the body, leading to anemia, and disorders associated with the endocrine system, heart, or the kidneys.
In the absence of treatment, the organisms cross the blood-brain barrier. This is the neurological phase. In this phase, the person experiences confusion, reduced coordination, sleep disorders, severe fatigue, slumber during the daytime, and intense sleep deprivation at night. The neurological phase, if not diagnosed and treated on time, could lead to coma and possibly death.
Various tests can be done to diagnose the condition, which include, blood tests, albumin test, globulin test, lymph node aspiration, and cerebrospinal fluid tests.
The treatment options that are recommended vary, depending on the stage of the disease. An early diagnosis ensures high chances of successful treatment. If the disease reaches neurological phase, then the drug administered should be able to cross the blood-brain barrier to target the parasite.
Until now, three kinds of drugs are in use for its treatment. These include Melarsoprol, Pentamidine isethionate, and Suramin. The first two are used for treatment of early phase of the disease, and the third one is the drug of choice for the neurological phase. Even though these drugs have proved to be effective, these can cause certain side effects in some cases. Complications such as fatal hypersensitivity (allergic) reaction, kidney or liver damage, or inflammation of the brain are observed in some patients. Therefore, close monitoring of patients is required during treatment. Hospitalization is required in some cases and periodic follow-up test of spinal fluid is mandatory for 2 years.
Preventive measures such as wearing ankle and wrist-length clothing made from medium-weight fabric and using bed nets is advised in high-risk areas. Since shrubs serve as breeding grounds for these flies, getting rid of shrubbery and spraying insecticides can help in checking the growth of these flies. Regular checkups are also recommended to prevent the risk of the spread of the infection in such areas.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.