Edinburgh University Scientists Combat African Sleeping Sickness by Jasper Farrell

Jasper Farrell

Researchers at Edinburgh University are developing a new programme to combat sleeping sickness in Africa, which could potentially save thousands of lives in the area.

Scientists led by Professor Sue Welburn, the University’s Chair of Medical and Veterinary Molecular Epidemiology,  have claimed that the number of severe cases of the disease in Uganda have fallen by 90 per cent after injecting cattle with a new advanced drug that kills the parasite carrying the infection.

They were thereby able to eliminate the parasite during its incubation period – the time in which the parasite lies dormant in the host – by injecting thousands of cattle with a single innoculation of the drug trypanocide, before using disinfectant to prevent the chances of re-infection.

While the treatment involves complex and drawn out planning and work, the drug itself is cheap and easy to administer.

Professor Welburn’s assistant, Pauline McManus, told us that Professor Welburn and her team were currently out of the country, yet expressed her pride in the work being carried out.

The disease itself is a parasitic infection, similar to Malaria which has also ravaged the continent. The parasite originates in cattle yet spreads to humans via an insect called the Tsetse fly, which are very common in rural areas.

Symptoms include high fever, headaches, itchiness and joint pains. Several weeks later, the patient begins to experience numbness, poor co-ordination and trouble sleeping.

Speaking beforehand to BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland, Professor Welburn spoke of the effects that the potentially lethal disease. “It is transmitted by tsetse flies and they inoculate these parasites into your blood where they multiply and then these parasites move from your blood to your central nervous system where they cause profound problems and really quite extraordinary symptoms,” she said.

“It is absolutely fatal if it is not treated.”

As cattle are largely immune to the infection, the parasite can reside inside them for longer periods of time. Professor Welburn described the process by which a human is infected as a “matter of chance”, with the tsetse fly travelling from cattle to human.

Plans have been drawn to extend the project to all areas of Uganda, with the further inoculations of over two million more cattle.