Battling the deadly bite of the tsetse fly
February 28, 1998
Web posted at: 2:08 p.m. EST (1908 GMT)
(CNN) -- On the African continent, in the narrow band between
the 15th parallels that bookend the equator, a tiny fly is
jeopardizing the lives of 55 million people and could be
responsible for one of the largest epidemics of this century.
The narrow arc along the equator ventures through 36
sub-Saharan nations, 22 of which are among the most
underdeveloped in the world. In every land, the tsetse fly
The tsetse fly feeds on the blood of animals and humans. Its
bite can carry a parasite that will work its way through your
body and, if left untreated, put you on course for a slow,
agonizing and certain death.
It's called the sleeping sickness.
The World Health Organization says if the entire at-risk
population were put under medical surveillance, the number of
diagnosed cases would reach 250,000 to 300,000.
But accurate medical surveillance is difficult in a region
wracked by civil wars, economic turmoil, environmental
changes and displaced populations. WHO estimates that
one-tenth of the at-risk population is under surveillance,
which has allowed about 25,000 new cases of sleeping sickness
to be diagnosed each year.
Dr. Michaleen Richer
of the International Medical Corps said the prevalence of sleeping sickness has risen by more than 15 percent.
"This is an epidemic of really catastrophic proportions,"
The IMC, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
CARE and other organizations are in the midst of a major
effort, which began last year, to identify people infected
with sleeping sickness and contain the epidemic.
But the organizations say their efforts could take years.
Meanwhile, WHO estimates that every year some 250,000 to
300,000 men, women and children are left to suffer and die
because their illness is going undiagnosed and untreated.
And every untreated, undiagnosed human creates a new host for
each uninfected tsetse fly, which means the disease spreads
Perhaps the saddest commentary on the lives lost is that the
illness is relatively easy to treat. But medicine is
expensive. It can cost more than $1,000 to cure a sleeping
"One hundred percent of these people will die if they don't
receive medication," said Dr. Sandra Clark of the IMC.
"These people have virtually nothing, and they are dependent
on the outside world for help."
WHO estimates it costs $27 million a year to fight the
disease in the 36 endemic countries, and another $1.5 million
a year to coordinate field efforts, technical support and
Some pharmaceutical companies have donated medicine to the
A horrible death
Much has been reported about the gruesome deaths associated
with hemorrhagic fevers, like Ebola, which can bring a quick
But imagine having your body slowly destroyed by a parasite
that will literally drive you insane.
That death is what the bite of the tsetse fly can bring.
In the beginning, you may think you have the flu. You can
run a high fever, have headaches, joint aches, even itching.
As the parasite spreads throughout your bloodstream, it takes
its toll on your organs. You can develop anemia or endocrine
disorders. You can develop heart and kidney problems. And
pregnant women can lose their fetuses.
By the time the parasite reaches the central nervous system,
you are vulnerable to unpredictable mood changes, and you are
so weak that it wears you out to eat or even open your eyes.
You are a danger to yourself and others because you can
suffer from sudden bouts of aggressiveness. In some
villages, the people tie sleeping-sickness victims to huts or
poles to keep them from harming others.
Eventually wasted and destroyed, sleeping-sickness victims
slip into a deep coma and die.
An old threat
Records indicate that Africans have fought against the
sleeping sickness as far back as the 14th century.
In 1906, an outbreak of sleeping sickness killed 4 million
people in Uganda.
Health officials say at that time, sleeping sickness was
considered the No. 1 public health threat in the tropics.