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Epidemic of sleeping sickness spreading in Uganda: study

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Aug 26, 2005 (Paris) — A five-year-old effort to curb sleeping sickness in part of southern Uganda has failed, according to a study that says the dangerous epidemic has now spread to other districts.

Sleeping sickness, a potentially fatal disease if not tackled in its early stages, is caused by the Trypanosoma parasite, transmitted from cattle to humans by the blood-sucking tsetse fly.

In 2000, the authorities in Soroti district, southern Uganda, launched a control programme, dosing cattle with long-acting drugs to kill the parasite, after tests showed that as much as 18 percent of local herds were carrying the parasite.

But the latest study, based on blood tests carried out in the area in April 2004, shows that the main parasite strain is present in 22 percent of local cattle — and similar infection rates occur among cattle in three villages just outside the intervention area.

In addition, infections have been reported in the district of Kaberamaido, potentially putting another 133,000 people at risk, and in the southern part of Lira district.

An especial worry is that the spreading epidemic could eventually overlap with another epidemic of sleeping sickness which is unfolding in Uganda’s northwest and in southern Sudan.

The two epidemics are caused by different parasites that need different diagnostic tools and drugs, so an overlap would greatly add to treatment costs.

The research, which appears in this Saturday’s issue of the British weekly The Lancet, is lead-authored by Eric Fevre of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

His team reckons that 428 cases of sleeping sickness were diagnosed in Soroti over the five-year period, but as many as 300 more may have gone unspotted.

Fevre blames livestock movements, abetted by instability in southern Uganda, as the cause for the failure in Soroti.

In East Africa, sleeping sickness is endemic to parts of Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia as well as Uganda.

The parasite initially causes fever, exhaustion and aching muscles and joints, leading within weeks or months to progressive confusion, personality changes and seizures as the infection invades the central nervous system.

AFP/ST

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