Neglected diseases

African sleeping sickness

“I'm proud to be able to think clearly again, thanks to the treatment.”
  • Moses Ayiri, African Sleeping Sickness Patient, Uganda

Global awakening in the fight against African sleeping sickness

Chart: Cycles of african sleepness disease
Chart: Cycles of african sleepness disease

Confusion, sensory disturbances, coordination difficulties: patients who suffer from African sleeping sickness gradually lose control of their consciousness and eventually fall into a coma in the final stage of the disease. This insidious infection is caused by single-celled Trypanosoma parasites, which attack the brain and the central nervous system. If left untreated, African sleeping sickness is fatal, although it can be cured with drugs in the early stages.

Figures demonstrate success

Chart: One desease - two forms of infection
Chart: One desease - two forms of infection

The disease threatens millions of people in 36 countries south of the Sahara. The need for action is especially urgent when patients are infected with the parasite Trypanosoma brucei gambiense, the pathogen responsible for 95 percent of all infections. In this form the disease remains undetected for months or years. By the time the first symptoms appear it is already well advanced, so that treatment is difficult.

Tsetse fly
Tsetse fly

Since 2000 the WHO, assisted by partners, has been working hard to contain African sleeping sickness. Thanks to screening programs and the provision of drugs the number of cases has been declining sharply: the number of new cases reported fell below 10,000 for the first time in 2009; the estimated total number of cases had declined from 300,000 in 1998 to 30,000 in 2009.

Bayer is one of the companies giving the WHO key support in the fight against African sleeping sickness.

Live-saving drugs for the WHO

The widespread West African form of sleeping sickness can now be effectively treated with a therapy combining two active substances: Bayer's nifurtimox and eflornithine from another manufacturer. After completion of clinical trials in 2009, the new therapy was added to the WHO's List of Essential Medicines. Since then, Bayer supports WHO supplying nifurtimox for the treatment for the Nifurtimox-Eflonithine Comination Treatment (NECT).

Patient Adomaté (9) on the road to recovery after a long treatment odyssey in Omugo, Uganda.

In addition, the company has been providing 10,000 ampoules per annum with the active ingredient suramin since 2002, which is also on the WHO's List of Essential Medicines. Suramin is used to treat people infected with the parasite Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense, which occurs mainly in Eastern and Southern Africa. In this case, symptoms already appear in the first stage of the disease – so the therapy can be initiated early. This type of pathogen is responsible for less than 5 percent of cases.

Erphas Olema, 38, Director of the Omugo Health Center in north-west Uganda

Microsite – Uganda: African sleeping sickness

African sleeping sickness is one of the greatest health challenges in Uganda. The disease not only makes people tired – it kills. Its victims are socially ostracized, and treatment used to involve almost unbearable side effects. Reporter Matias Boem visited the country and talked to patients and family members about living with the disease.

Click here to read the full report:

Uganda: African sleeping sickness

Number of cases worldwide: 20,000 according to the WHO’s estimate (03/2014)

Number of reported cases worldwide: 6,228 in 2013

Transmission: The pathogens – the single-celled parasites Trypanosoma crucei gambiense (Western and Central Africa) and Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense (Eastern and Southern Africa) – are mainly transmitted to humans in the saliva of the tsetse fly
Course of the disease: The pathogens infect the brain and the central nervous system. Typical symptoms include confusion, sensory disturbances, coordination difficulties – and coma in the final stage. African sleeping sickness is fatal if it goes untreated.