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DEVELOPMENT REPORT - August 6, 2001: African Sleeping Sickness - 2001-08-03

This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

African Sleeping Sickness is once again threatening many countries south of the Sahara Desert.

The disease is caused by the trypanosome parasite. The parasite enters the human body through the bite of the tsetse fly. Doctors say it takes very few parasites to infect a person. If the infection is not treated, a person’s defense system cannot destroy the parasite, and the person dies.

Sleeping sickness has been affecting people in Africa for thousands of years. It is found only in African tsetse flies. Researchers do not know why tsetse flies carry the disease in Africa, but not in other parts of the world.

Sleeping sickness has been a major problem in Africa two other times in the past century. The disease was almost destroyed in the Nineteen-Sixties, but has since returned. The World Health Organization says twenty to fifty percent of people suffer the disease in some villages in Angola, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About forty-five-thousand sleeping sickness infections are reported to the W-H-O every year. But officials say as many as four-hundred-thousand people probably suffer from the disease each year.

Medical experts say early treatment can cure African Sleeping Sickness. But it is difficult to tell if a person has the disease. Early signs include high body temperature, muscle pain and a tired feeling. The signs become worse later when the parasite invades the brain. Then the victim acts strangely or sleeps all day.Treating sleeping sickness is costly. The drug used to treat the early signs of the disease is also used to kill a parasite that affects some people with the disease AIDS.

This has increased its price. The drug used in more severe Sleeping Sickness infections is a poison that can kill up to ten percent of the patients who use it. A safer medicine had stopped being produced recently. However, the W-H-O negotiated an agreement with a drug company to provide all the medicines to treat sleeping sickness free of charge.

Sleeping sickness experts say more people in Africa should be examined for the disease. They also say that leaders of affected countries must improve national health care systems to prevent the disease.

This VOA Special English Development Report was written by Nancy Steinbach.