The Safari Experts
sleeping sickness

Sleeping sickness in Africa


... is a parasitic disease of people and animals, transmitted by the tsetse fly. It is a relatively rare but serious disease which needs strong and prompt medical treatment.

For what it is worth, at the time of writing none of us here at ATR have never personally known anyone to get sleeping sickness, it seems to remain very rare indeed amongst travellers.

Locations ...

The disease is endemic in some regions of sub-Saharan Africa, covering about 37 countries and 60 million people. It is estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 people are currently infected, the number having declined somewhat in recent years. The number of reported cases was below 10,000 in 2009, the first time in 50 years. It is believed that many cases go unreported. About 48,000 people died of it in 2008.

The only safari area in which we have heard of travellers getting sleeping sickness is Tarangire National Park in Northern Tanzania, although we and our guests have spent plenty of time in this reserve with no ill effects.

Symptoms ...

Sleeping sickness symptoms occur in two stages ...

The first stage is known as the haemolymphatic phase and is characterized by fever, headaches, joint pains, and itching. Invasion of the circulatory and lymphatic system by the parasites is associated with severe swelling of lymph nodes, often to tremendous sizes. The tell-tale swollen lymph nodes along the back of the neck, may appear. If left untreated, the disease overcomes the host's defences and can cause more extensive damage, broadening symptoms to include anaemia, endocrine, cardiac, and kidney dysfunctions.

The second stage, called the neurological phase, begins when the parasite invades the central nervous system by passing through the blood-brain barrier. The term 'sleeping sickness' comes from the symptoms of the neurological phase. The symptoms include confusion, reduced coordination, and disruption of the sleep cycle, with bouts of fatigue punctuated with manic periods leading to daytime slumber and night-time insomnia. Without treatment, the disease is invariably fatal, with progressive mental deterioration leading to coma and death. Damage caused in the neurological phase is irreversible.

Avoidance ...

The best way to avoid getting sleeping sickness is to avoid getting bitten by tsetse flies.

Sometimes referred to a the guardians of the bush, tsetse flies are largely responsible for large areas of Africa remaining wild, since the sleeping sickness that they transmit is harmful to domestic animals and people. In the era of the Great White Hunter, going on safari would be referred to as going into fly country, which has led to the modern safari term to go fly camping, which we try to avoid because it tends to confuse people.

Probably the greatest single example of an area protected for conservation by the tsetse fly is the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, which is an enormous tract of land largely infested with these flies, not so much in the main safari areas to the south, but most definitely in the huge hunting areas further south.

Tsetse flies tend to be more common in areas of dense thicket and low forest. They tend to be most annoying to people travelling slowly in vehicles, since they are strongly attracted to the movement and dust.

If you are in a closed vehicle then winding up the windows and lowering the roof hatch should give you good relief, although it still leaves you with the issue of killing those flies which have already entered the vehicle. Others may still enter via the air grilles and other small holes.

If you are in an open vehicle then you are much less able to protect yourself and should speed up to around 20kph or 15mph, since this will leave them behind.

In some areas, notably in Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania, safari vehicles burn a canister of elephant dung at the rear, which smells quite nice to us humans, but is apparently repellent to tsetse flies.

On occasion fly swats are provided, although these are of limited value.

Whether you are in a vehicle or out on foot in a tsetse area we strongly recommend that you wear sturdy clothes with long sleeves and legs in order to deter bites, even a heavy jacket if temperatures permit. You should avoid the colour blue, which the flies find highly attractive.

Some safari operators also advocate the use of insect repellent sprays, notably Peaceful Sleep, although we remain unconvinced as to whether this has any effect on such a formidable aggressor.

Ultimately if you are in a tsetse fly area then the chances are you will be bitten at some stage, in which case you just have to hope that the particular fly is not carrying the sickness and/or that the infection was not transmitted during the bite.

During his mis-spent youth out in the bush our Lenny developed a fabulous list of the best ten ways to kill a tsetse fly, a legendary work of safari bush-craft, reputedly still existent on the back of the cigarette packet upon which it was first engraved. Hold him by the wings, tickle his tummy, watch him swell and explode. That's the tsetse fly, not Lenny!

Read more about sleeping sickness in Wikipedia.

Read more about tsetse flies in Wikipedia.

News ...

Scientists believe they have found a way to beat sleeping sickness by using a bacterium against the host that spreads the disease to humans ... the tsetse fly ... BBC News.

Disclaimer : Please note that all of the information on this page and elsewhere in the health section of our website is provided for information only. We suggest that you always refer to a health professional when seeking medical advice.
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