There are 2 types of the disease. They are named for the areas of Africa where they are found. West African sleeping sickness is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma brucei gambiense. This long-term (chronic) infection can last for years. East African sleeping sickness is caused by Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense. It’s a short-term (acute) illness that may last several weeks to months.
People from the U.S. who travel to Africa are rarely infected. On average, 1 U.S. citizen is infected every year. The person is typically infected in East African game parks.
The only people at risk for African sleeping sickness are those to travel to Africa. That’s where the tsetse fly is found. The parasites that cause the disease are passed on only by the tsetse fly.
The tsetse flies live only in rural areas. They live in woodland thickets of the savanna and dense vegetation along streams. Visitors to cities and other urban areas are usually not at risk. The disease is found mainly in tropical Africa. The greatest risk of getting it is in:
Tsetse fly bites can be quite painful. Travelers often recall being bitten. A painful sore often shows up at the site of the bite within a week or so. It’s called a chancre.
Each person may have slightly different symptoms. But symptoms tend to happen within 1 to 4 weeks of infection. At first, they may include fever, skin lesions, rash, swelling, or swollen lymph nodes on the back of the neck. After many weeks, the infection may become meningoencephalitis. This is an infection of the brain and the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. As the illness gets worse, symptoms may include:
If left untreated, death will occur within several weeks to months. The symptoms of African sleeping sickness may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on:
Medicine is available to treat the disease. You will need to stay in the hospital. After you go home, you will need follow-up exams for about 2 years. These will include a spinal tap. Because this infection is so rare, your healthcare provider may talk with an infectious disease or tropical medicine specialist.
No vaccine or medicine can prevent African sleeping sickness. But you can avoid being bitten by tsetse flies. Experts recommend the following:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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