CyberDodo and the TseTse fly (1-47)

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Is the sleeping sickness serious ?

The sleeping sickness is a term which could tend to make you smile since everyone knows that it is both pleasant and necessary to get regular rest. In reality, however, it is a very misleading name since the humans and animals who are infected with this illness are not condemned to sleep but to death !

This terrible illness is transmitted by a parasite : the trypanosome which needs a vector or, in other words, a carrier to infect its victims. The organism indeed found an adept carrier in this insect, which has become very famous for the devastation it causes : the tsetse fly.

A fly ? No, a killer…

How does the tsetse transmit the disease ?

The trypanosome organism found in the tsetse fly a perfect accomplice for his mission of destruction because the fly does not appear to be affected; the parasite (trypanosome) and its host (the fly) live in harmony.

In feeding on blood, the fly is infected from the first bite of a human or animal already infected with trypanosome. From that time on, the organisms will multiply in the insect which will spread the illness in the course of future attacks.

The tsetse’s proboscis is just like a seringe, allowing the fly to effectively suck the blood of its victims. While doing so, the tsetse will infect them with his saliva which contains trypanosomes – ergo, the illness is transmitted.

One must be very very careful with these insects !

Is there only one form of sleeping illness ?

No, there are several forms, affecting both humans and animals, more and less severely.

Among animals, it is primarily livestock that are affected (Bullock, cows, goats, sheep, pigs) but also horses and camels.

Where are tsetse flies found?

In Africa, where depending on the region, the fly will infect humans with Trypanosoma brucei gambiense (Trypanosomiase of eastern Africa = Forests, watering holes, etc.) or Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense (Trypanosomiase of eastern Africa = Savannahs, etc.) or one of the following forms : Trypanosoma brucei brucei, congolense, simiae, suis and vivax which affect animals.

Is there a cure for the sleeping sickness ?

Here, the dire sanitary and economic conditions present in Africa come into play. Despite this illness being curable if diagnosed sufficiently early, between 50 to 80% of individuals who are infected with the illness will die.

Ongoing armed conflicts further aggravate the situation by effectively preventing human and animal screening, as well as information and prevention campaigns.

The WHO estimates that approximately half a million persons suffer from the disease and in certain regions of the Congo, Angola and Sudan, trypanosomiase proves to be the leading cause of death, or the second leading cause of death after HIV/AIDS.

Whats more, over 3 million animals die each year due to sleeping sickness.

How can we protect populations against trypanosome ?

A notable success occurred in Zanzibar (Tanzanian island group in the Indian Ocean) with respect to the fight against the sleeping sickness. Indeed, it is is now several years since trypanosome disappeared from the island. To accomplish this, scientists used a technique know as «the sterile insect » which involves trapping the flies, sterilising the males by exposing them to gamma ray radiation and then re-releasing them into nature.

Thereafter, their reproductive efforts with the female tsetse produces no offspring and their territory is thereby progressively (temporarily ?) rid of this menace.

Other techniques have been tested with more or less success and with varying impacts on the environment – from the mass slaughter of animals that are potential carriers of trypanosome in a region, to the use of massive quantities of pesticides, the systematic clearing of vegetation harbouring the tsetse or the placing of traps to attract and then kill them.

Various studies are always ongoing to determine the level of effectiveness of each of these methods, as well as their respective durability.

Means to fight against the tsetse fly exist

What are the consequences of the sleeping sickness ?

The consequences for the African continent are terrible. With respect to human victims, severe damages to livestock herds and resultant poverty are just two serious consequences. In spreading the sleeping sickness, the tsetse fly foils the possibility for millions of farmers to keep work animals which are truly essential for an effective cultivation of the earth, not to mention the manure produced by these animals, a top choice for fertilizer.

Numerous experts estimate that the sleeping sickness is responsible for the inability to cultivate millions of square kilometers of fertile earth in Africa, with so many humans literally dying from hunger on the very borders thereof.

How can one protect themself from the tsetse fly ?

Most importantly, you must avoid all contact with the insect ! Indeed, it is important to know that common insect repellents applied to the skin have no effect on the tsetse fly. Whats more, there is no vaccine against trypanosome.

In at-risk regions, it is important to wear clothing covering the arms and legs as much as possible and to wear closed shoes as well as socks, despite temperatures that are usually very high.

At night, a mosquito net is indispensable.

In conclusion, the tsetse fly is a veritable scourge which is ravaging Africa. The international mobilization of both knowledge and action is critical to finding the means to effectively and permanently protect affected populations and animals. It is truly outrageous that in the 21st century, it is still possible to die from an illness for which there exists a cure (To learn more about this subject, see episode n° 36 about disease in developing countries).

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To know more about the subject :

To see the cartoon about the tsetse fly, click here

For the quiz, click here

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