Six key warning signs of silent killer disease known as ‘sleeping sickness’

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is warning of a deadly disease, known as “sleeping sickness” that can result in death.

Human African trypanosomiasis, or HAT, is transmitted to humans via the bite of tsetse flies that are infected with certain parasites.

While these flies are typically found in sub-Saharan Africa – areas of the continent south of the Sahara desert – travellers to affected regions could be “at risk” of infection.

Populations most at risk are those living in rural areas, particularly if they are involved in agriculture, fishing or hunting.

There is currently no vaccine or preventative medicine for HAT, with travellers who spend lots of time outdoors or in game parks when visiting the area vulnerable.

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Symptoms to look out for

Sleeping sickness gets its name due to a common symptom, which is disturbed sleep or a broken sleep pattern.

However, a person could be infected for months or even years without displaying signs.

When symptoms do appear this could mean the disease is advanced and their central nervous system is already badly affected.

There are two types of sleeping sickness, named for the area they originate from: East African Trypanosomiasis and West African Trypanosomiasis.

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In both cases the person might notice a “painful” bite from the tsetse fly, which will “occasionally” create a red sore, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

The symptoms of East African Trypanosomiasis that follow, often weeks later, can include:

  • Fever
  • Severe headaches
  • Irritability
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Aching muscles and joints.

“Some” people also develop a skin rash.

If the infection has invaded the central nervous system the person might experience progressive confusion, personality changes, and other neurologic problems.

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West African Trypanosomiasis shares many of the same symptoms but can also trigger swelling of the face and hands, and weight loss.

It is also more likely to take months or up to a year for signs to appear.

The CDC adds about both: “If left untreated, infection becomes worse and death will occur within months.”

If you experience symptoms and think it could be HAT, the CDC recommends seeing a medical professional as soon as possible.

You might require blood tests, a spinal tap or biopsy for a diagnosis.

The CDC advises several steps to take if you are travelling to an affected area.

It recommends you:

  • Wear protective clothing, including long-sleeved shirts and pants – The tsetse fly can bite through thin fabrics, so clothing should be made of medium-weight material
  • Wear neutral-coloured clothing – The tsetse fly is attracted to bright colours and very dark colours
  • Inspect vehicles for tsetse flies before entering – The tsetse fly is attracted to moving vehicles
  • Avoid bushes – The tsetse fly is less active during the hottest period of the day. It rests in bushes but will bite if disturbed
  • Use insect repellent – Though insect repellents have not proven effective in preventing tsetse fly bites, they are effective in preventing other insects from biting and causing illness.

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