The last souvenir you’d expect to bring home from an African safari is the tsetse fly. About the size of a regular housefly, this fly is capable of infecting you with trypanosomiasis. The tsetse fly carries a parasite that infects 25,000 new victims each year. In the last 50 years, the 36 cases that have been reported within the US were all from people that traveled to Africa. Here’s what you need to know about “the sleeping sickness” and how you can avoid getting it if you travel to Africa.
How Do You Get Bit?
Tsetse flies hang out in rural areas of Africa, such as farms and other areas where fishing, animal husbandry, and hunting occur. If an infected fly bites you—and they love blood—the parasite is now in your bloodstream and lymph nodes. You will notice the bite about a week later, as it develops into a red sore.
What Are The Symptoms?
Attracted to the human brain, trypanosomiasis alters the function and structure of your brain cells, especially the area which helps regulate mood and sleep/wake cycles. At first, you may:
- Have headaches
- Have trouble sleeping, or sleep at strange hours
- Experience fever and rash
- Feel fatigue and achy muscles and joints
As the disease progresses, other psychological symptoms emerge like:
- Odd speech patterns
- Itching and tremors
- Weight loss
- Personality changes
- Difficulty walking
Finally, if unchecked, odd behavior lapses into a feeling of laziness, deep sleep turning into a coma, and then death. Symptoms can take place over months and years.
How Is It Diagnosed?
It is difficult to diagnose trypanosomiasis early and properly because of the utter range and unpredictability of the symptoms. Your family may think you have a host of other problems, ranging from depression to simple insomnia.
Several simple tests will reveal whether you have trypanosomiasis. A doctor who specializes in brain conditions can order blood samples, skin biopsies, fluid samples from swollen lymph nodes, and a spinal tap.
Is There A Cure?
For most people, there are appropriate cocktails of drugs to kill the parasite, depending on how advanced your case is. Rarely does a victim die unless the parasite has proliferated enough.
How Do I Avoid Getting Trypanosomiasis?
There is no immunization against this parasite, but a little common sense goes a long way. If you will be traveling to any part of Africa, stay away from hunters, game wardens, and game parks. If you are in a rural area, avoid areas of thick shrubbery and trees near water sources. The best thing you can do is wear an insect repellent with DEET.