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African Trypanosomiasis

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African Trypanosomiasis, also known as “sleeping sickness,” is caused by microscopic parasites of the species Trypanosoma brucei. It is transmitted by the tsetse fly (Glossina species), which is found only in rural Africa. Although the infection is not found in the United States, historically, it has been a serious public health problem in some regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, about 10,000 new cases each year are reported to the World Health organization; however, it is believed that many cases go undiagnosed and unreported. Sleeping sickness is curable with medication, but is fatal if left untreated.

Epidemiology & Risk Factors

Trypomastigotes of T. brucei ssp. in a blood smear stained with Giemsa. Credit: DPDx

There are two subspecies of the parasite Trypanosoma brucei that cause disease in humans. The clinical features of the infection depend on the subspecies involved. The two subspecies are found in different regions of Africa. At present, there is no overlap in their geographic distribution.

T. b. rhodesiense (East African sleeping sickness) is found in focal areas of eastern and southeastern Africa. Each year a few hundred cases are reported to the World Health Organization. Over 95% of the cases of human infection occur in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and Zambia. Animals are the primary reservoir of infection. Cattle have been implicated in the spread of the disease to new areas and in local outbreaks. A wild animal reservoir is thought to be responsible for sporadic transmission to hunters and visitors to game parks. Infection of international travelers is rare, but it occasionally occurs. In the U.S., one case per year, on average, is diagnosed. Most cases of sleeping sickness imported into the U.S. have been in travelers who were on safari in East Africa.

T. b. gambiense (West African sleeping sickness) is found predominantly in central Africa and in limited areas of West Africa. Most of the sleeping sickness in Africa is caused by this form of the parasite. Epidemics of sleeping sickness have been a significant public health problem in the past, but the disease is reasonably well-controlled at present, with 7,000-10,000 cases reported annually in recent years. Over 95% of the cases of human infection are found in Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, and northern Uganda. Humans are the important reservoir of infection, although the parasite can sometimes be found in domestic animals (e.g., pigs, dogs, goats). Imported infection in the U.S. is extremely rare, and most cases have occurred in African nationals who have immigrated rather than in returning U.S. travelers.

Close up of a tsetse fly taking a blood meal. Tsetse flies can transmit T. brucei.

Both forms of sleeping sickness are transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly (Glossina species). Tsetse flies inhabit rural areas, living in the woodlands and thickets that dot the East African savannah. In central and West Africa, they live in the forests and vegetation along streams. Tsetse flies bite during daylight hours. Both male and female flies can transmit the infection, but even in areas where the disease is endemic, only a very small percentage of flies are infected. Although the vast majority of infections are transmitted by the tsetse fly, other modes of transmission are possible. Occasionally, a pregnant woman can pass the infection to her unborn baby. In theory, the infection can also be transmitted by blood transfusion or sexual contact, but such cases have rarely been documented.

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This information is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a health care provider. If you have any questions about the parasites described above or think that you may have a parasitic infection, consult a health care provider.

Biology

Causal Agents:

Protozoan hemoflagellates belonging to the complex Trypanosoma brucei. Two subspecies that are morphologically indistinguishable cause distinct disease patterns in humans: T. b. gambiense causes West African sleeping sickness and T. b. rhodesiense causes East African sleeping sickness. (A third member of the complex, T. b. brucei, under normal conditions does not infect humans.)

Life Cycle:

AfrTryp LifeCycleDuring a blood meal on the mammalian host, an infected tsetse fly (genus Glossina) injects metacyclic trypomastigotes into skin tissue. The parasites enter the lymphatic system and pass into the bloodstream . Inside the host, they transform into bloodstream trypomastigotes , are carried to other sites throughout the body, reach other blood fluids (e.g., lymph, spinal fluid), and continue the replication by binary fission . The entire life cycle of African Trypanosomes is represented by extracellular stages. The tsetse fly becomes infected with bloodstream trypomastigotes when taking a blood meal on an infected mammalian host ( , ). In the fly’s midgut, the parasites transform into procyclic trypomastigotes, multiply by binary fission , leave the midgut, and transform into epimastigotes . The epimastigotes reach the fly’s salivary glands and continue multiplication by binary fission . The cycle in the fly takes approximately 3 weeks. Humans are the main reservoir for Trypanosoma brucei gambiense, but this species can also be found in animals. Wild game animals are the main reservoir of T. b. rhodesiense.

Disease

The clinical course of human African trypanosomiasis has two stages. In the first stage, the parasite is found in the peripheral circulation, but it has not yet invaded the central nervous system. Once the parasite crosses the blood-brain barrier and infects the central nervous system, the disease enters the second stage. The subspecies that cause African trypanosomiasis have different rates of disease progression, and the clinical features depend on which form of the parasite (T. b. rhodesiense or T. b. gambiense) is causing the infection. However, infection with either form will eventually lead to coma and death if not treated.

T. b. rhodesiense infection (East African sleeping sickness) progresses rapidly. In some patients, a large sore (a chancre) will develop at the site of the tsetse bite. Most patients develop fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and enlarged lymph nodes within 1-2 weeks of the infective bite. Some people develop a rash. After a few weeks of infection, the parasite invades the central nervous system and eventually causes mental deterioration and other neurologic problems. Death ensues usually within months.

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T. b. gambiense infection (West African sleeping sickness) progresses more slowly. At first, there may be only mild symptoms. Infected persons may have intermittent fevers, headaches, muscle and joint aches, and malaise. Itching of the skin, swollen lymph nodes, and weight loss can occur. Usually, after 1-2 years, there is evidence of central nervous system involvement, with personality changes, daytime sleepiness with nighttime sleep disturbance, and progressive confusion. Other neurologic signs, such as partial paralysis or problems with balance or walking may occur, as well as hormonal imbalances. The course of untreated infection rarely lasts longer than 6-7 years and more often kills in about 3 years.

Diagnosis

Trypanosoma brucei ssp. in a thin blood smear stained with Giemsa. Credit: DPDx

The diagnosis of African Trypanosomiasis is made through laboratory methods, because the clinical features of infection are not sufficiently specific. The diagnosis rests on finding the parasite in body fluid or tissue by microscopy. The parasite load in T. b. rhodesiense infection is substantially higher than the level in T. b. gambiense infection.

T. b. rhodesiense parasites can easily be found in blood. They can also be found in lymph node fluid or in fluid or biopsy of a chancre. Serologic testing is not widely available and is not used in the diagnosis, since microscopic detection of the parasite is straightforward.

The classic method for diagnosing T. b. gambiense infection is by microscopic examination of lymph node aspirate, usually from a posterior cervical node. It is often difficult to detect T. b. gambiense in blood. Concentration techniques and serial examinations are frequently needed. Serologic testing is available outside the U.S. for T. b. gambiense; however, it normally is used for screening purposes only and the definitive diagnosis rests on microscopic observation of the parasite.

All patients diagnosed with African trypanosomiasis must have their cerebrospinal fluid examined to determine whether there is involvement of the central nervous system, since the choice of treatment drug(s) will depend on the disease stage. The World Health Organization criteria for central nervous system involvement include increased protein in cerebrospinal fluid and a white cell count of more than 5. Trypanosomes can often be observed in cerebrospinal fluid in persons with second stage infection.

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Treatment

A patient in the Democratic Republic of Congo receiving treatment for stage 2 sleeping sickness.

All persons diagnosed with African Trypanosomiasis should receive treatment. The specific drug and treatment course will depend on the type of infection (T. b. gambiense or T. b. rhodesiense) and the disease stage (i.e. whether the central nervous system has been invaded by the parasite). Pentamidine, which is the recommended drug for first stage T. b. gambiense infection, is widely available in the U.S. The other drugs (suramin, melarsoprol, eflornithine, and nifurtimox) used to treat African trypanosomiasis are available in the U.S. only from the CDC. Physicians can consult with CDC staff for advice on diagnosis and management and to obtain otherwise unavailable treatment drug.

There is no test of cure for African trypanosomiasis. After treatment patients need to have serial examinations of their cerebrospinal fluid for 2 years, so that relapse can be detected if it occurs.

Prevention & Control

There is no vaccine or drug for prophylaxis against African trypanosomiasis. Preventive measures are aimed at minimizing contact with tsetse flies. Local residents are usually aware of the areas that are heavily infested and they can provide advice about places to avoid. Other helpful measures include:
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants of medium-weight material in neutral colors that blend with the background environment. Tsetse flies are attracted to bright or dark colors, and they can bite through lightweight clothing.
  • Inspect vehicles before entering. The flies are attracted to the motion and dust from moving vehicles.
  • Avoid bushes. The tsetse fly is less active during the hottest part of the day but will bite if disturbed.
  • Use insect repellent. Permethrin-impregnated clothing and insect repellent have not been proved to be particularly effective against tsetse flies, but they will prevent other insect bites that can cause illness.

Control of African trypanosomiasis rests on two strategies: reducing the disease reservoir and controlling the tsetse fly vector. Because humans are the significant disease reservoir for T. b. gambiense, the main control strategy for this subspecies is active case-finding through population screening, followed by treatment of the infected persons that are identified. Tsetse fly traps are sometimes used as an adjunct. Reducing the reservoir of infection is more difficult for T. b. rhodesiense, since there are a variety of animal hosts. Vector control is the primary strategy in use. This is usually done with traps or screens, in combination with insecticides and odors that attract the flies.

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