About This Condition

African Sleeping Sickness

What is African sleeping sickness?

African sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis) is a disease caused by a parasite. It is passed on by the bite of the infected tsetse fly.

What causes African sleeping sickness?

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.

People from the U.S. who travel to Africa are rarely infected. On average, 1 U.S. citizen is infected in a year. The person is typically infected in East African game parks.

Who is at risk for African sleeping sickness?

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:

  • Angola 
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Congo
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Malawi
  • Tanzania 
  • Sudan
  • Uganda 
  • Zambia

What are the symptoms of African sleeping sickness?

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:

  • Severe headache
  • Personality change
  • Weight loss
  • Irritability
  • Loss of concentration
  • Progressive confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty walking and talking
  • Sleeping for long periods of the day
  • Insomnia at night

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 health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is African sleeping sickness diagnosed?

See a health care provider as soon as possible if you think you are infected. Tests can find the parasite. These tests may include blood samples and a spinal tap (lumbar puncture). Your provider may also take a sample of chancre fluid or tissue, or fluid from swollen lymph nodes.

How is African sleeping sickness treated?

Your health care provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on:

  • How old you are
  • Your overall health and past health
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

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 health care provider may talk with an infectious disease or tropical medicine specialist.

What are the complications of African sleeping sickness?

If the disease is not treated, the symptoms can worsen to a severe illness. Death will occur.

Can African sleeping sickness be prevented?

No vaccine or medicine can prevent African sleeping sickness. But you can avoid being bitten. Experts recommend the following:

  • Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and pants. Tsetse flies can bite through material, so clothing should be made of thick fabric.
  • Wear khaki, olive, or other neutral-colored clothing. Tsetse flies are attracted to bright and dark contrasting colors.
  • Use insect repellent. It isn’t effective against bites by the tsetse fly. But it can prevent other insect bites and illnesses.
  • Use bed nets when sleeping.
  • Look inside vehicles for tsetse flies before getting into them.
  • Do not ride in the back of jeeps, pickup trucks, or other open vehicles. Tsetse flies are attracted to the dust created by moving vehicles and animals.
  • Stay away from bushes. During the hottest part of the day, the tsetse fly will rest in bushes. But they will bite if disturbed.

Living with African sleeping sickness

Be sure to follow your health care provider’s directions. You will need to be checked out periodically for at least a couple years.

When should I call my health care provider?

If your symptoms worsen or you have new ones, call your health care provider.

Key points

  • African sleeping sickness is a disease caused by a parasite. It is passed on by the bite of the infected tsetse fly.
  • The only risk factor is travel to parts of Africa where the tsetse fly is found.
  • The only way to prevent the disease is to avoid insect bites.
  • Medicine is available to treat it.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.