African trypanosomiasis is also known as sleeping sickness and It is a parasitic disease of humans and other animals. There are two types of African trypanosomiasis, East and West, named for the region of Africa in which they were historically found. People can get the disease if they are bitten by an infected tsetse fly, which is only found in rural areas (Africa). Treatment is available for African trypanosomiasis, but it is fatal if left untreated.
African trypanosomiasis symptoms occur in two stages.
The first stage, known as the haemolymphatic phase, is characterized by
- Joint pains
Fever is intermittent, with attacks lasting from a day to a week, separated by intervals of a few days to a month or longer. Invasion of the circulatory and lymphatic systems by the parasites is associated with severe swelling of lymph nodes, often to tremendous sizes. Winterbottom's sign, the tell-tale swollen lymph nodes along the back of the neck, may appear. Occasionally, a chancre (red sore) will develop at the location of the tsetse fly bite. If left untreated, the disease overcomes the host's defenses and can cause more extensive damage, broadening symptoms to include anemia, endocrine, cardiac, and kidney dysfunctions.
The second, neurological phase, begins when the parasite invades the central nervous system by passing through the blood–brain barrier. Disruption of the sleep cycle is a leading symptom of this stage and is the one that gave the disease the name 'sleeping sickness.' Infected individuals experience a disorganized and fragmented 24-hour rhythm of the sleep-wake cycle, resulting in daytime sleep episodes and nighttime periods of wakefulness.
Other neurological symptoms include confusion, tremor, general muscle weakness, hemiparesis and paralysis of a limb. Parkinson-like movements might arise due to non-specific movement disorders and speech disorders. Individuals may also exhibit psychiatric symptoms such as irritability, psychotic reactions, aggressive behaviour, or apathy which can sometimes dominate the clinical diagnosis.
Without treatment, the disease is invariably fatal, with progressive mental deterioration leading to coma, systemic organ failure, and death. An untreated infection with T. b. rhodesiense will cause death within months whereas an untreated infection with T. b. gambiense will cause death after several years. Damage caused in the neurological phase is irreversible.
There are two subspecies of the parasite that are responsible for initiating the disease in humans. Trypanosoma brucei gambiense causes the diseases in west and central Africa whereas, Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense has a limited geographical range and is responsible for causing the disease in east and southern Africa. In addition, a third subspecies of the parasite known as Trypanosoma brucei brucei is responsible for affecting animals but not humans. Humans are the main reservoir for T. b. gambiense but this species can also be found in pigs and other animals. Wild game animals and cattle are the main reservoir of T. b. rhodesiense. These parasites primarily infect individuals in sub-Saharan Africa because that is where the vector (tsetse fly) is located. The two human forms of the disease also vary greatly in intensity. T. b. gambiense causes a chronic condition that can remain in a passive phase for months or years before symptoms emerge and the infection can last about 3 years before death occurs. T. b. rhodesiense is the acute form of the disease and death can occur within months since the symptoms emerge within weeks and it is more virulent and faster developing than T. b. gambiense. Furthermore, trypanosomes are surrounded by a coat that is composed of variant surface glycoproteins (VSG). These proteins act to protect the parasite from any lytic factors that are present in human plasma. The host's immune system recognizes the glycoproteins present on the coat of the parasite leading to the production of different antibodies (IgM and IgG). These antibodies will then act to destroy the parasites that circulate around the blood. However, from the several parasites present in the plasma, a small number of them will experience changes in their surface coats resulting in the formation of new VSGs. Thus, the antibodies produced by the immune system will no longer recognize the parasite leading to proliferation until new antibodies are created to combat the novel VSGs. Eventually the immune system will no longer be able to fight off the parasite due to the constant changes in VSGs and infection will arise.
Currently there are few medically related prevention options for African Trypanosomiasis (i.e. no vaccine exists for immunity). Although the risk of infection from a tsetse fly bite is minor (estimated at less than 0.1%), the use of insect repellants, wearing long-sleeved clothing, avoiding tsetse-dense areas, implementing bush clearance methods and wild game culling are the best options to avoid infection available for local residents of affected areas.
The gold standard for diagnosis is identification of trypanosomes in a patient sample by microscopic examination. Patient samples that can be used for diagnosis include chancre fluid, lymph node aspirates, blood, bone marrow, and, during the neurological stage, cerebrospinal fluid. Detection of trypanosome-specific antibodies can be used for diagnosis, but the sensitivity and specificity of these methods are too variable to be used alone for clinical diagnosis. Further, seroconversion occurs after the onset of clinical symptoms during a T. b. rhodesiense infection, so is of limited diagnostic use.
Trypanosomes can be detected from patient samples using two different preparations. A wet preparation can be used to look for the motile trypanosomes. Alternatively, a fixed (dried) smear can be stained using Giemsa's or Field's technique and examined under a microscope. Often, the parasite is in relatively low abundance in the sample, so techniques to concentrate the parasites can be used prior to microscopic examination. For blood samples, these include centrifugation followed by examination of the buffy coat; mini anion-exchange/centrifugation; and the quantitative buffy coat (QBC) technique. For other samples, such as spinal fluid, concentration techniques include centrifugation followed by examination of the sediment.
Three serological tests are also available for detection of the parasite: the micro-CATT, wb-CATT, and wb-LATEX. The first uses dried blood, while the other two use whole blood samples. A 2002 study found the wb-CATT to be the most efficient for diagnosis, while the wb-LATEX is a better exam for situations where greater sensitivity is required.
If untreated, T. b. gambiense almost always results in death, with only a few individuals shown in a long-term 15 year follow-up to have survived after refusing treatment. T. b. rhodesiense, being a more acute and severe form of the disease, is consistently fatal if not treated. Disease progression greatly varies depending on disease form. For individuals which are infected by T. b. gambiense, which accounts for 98% of all of the reported cases, a person can be infected for months or even years without signs or symptoms until the advanced disease stage, where it is too late to be treated successfully. For individuals affected by T. b. rhodesiense, which accounts for 2% of all reported cases, symptoms appear within weeks or months of the infection. Disease progression is rapid and invades the central nervous system and causes death within a short amount of time.
Today, there are only a handful of active drugs available for treatment of human African trypanosomiasis. No significant development has been made over the last 2 decades. The current line of treatment is problematic for many reasons: firstly, the drugs are harmfully toxic requiring extensive hospitalization. Secondly, regular follow-ups to check for relapse is essential but difficult in many of the areas where sleeping sickness is endemic.