Sleeping sickness crisis in Kenya

More than 11 million people in Kenya under threat of getting human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Over 11 million people in Kenya are at the risk of being infected by sleeping sickness, a disease often transmitted to people by the tsetse fly in rural areas who depend on agriculture, fishing, animal husbandry and hunting.

Dr Pamela Olet, CEO of the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council, said "In Kenya, 38 out of 47 counties are infested with the tsetse fly."

She also added sleeping sickness was endemic to the Lake Victoria Basin region, which includes Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Olet said: "All the [Kenyan] counties in the Lake Victoria Basin are at risk; this translates to about 11 million people,"

Sleeping sickness is a vector-borne parasitic disease caused by infection by protozoan parasites. It is generally transmitted to humans by the bite of the tsetse fly.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), rural populations living in the regions where transmission occur – and which depend on agriculture, fishing, animal husbandry or hunting – are the most exposed to the tsetse fly and, therefore, to the disease.

Common symptoms of the disease include changes of behavior, confusion, sensory disturbances, poor coordination and disturbances in the sleep cycle.

Without treatment, the disease is considered fatal, according to the WHO, which hopes to eliminate it as a public health problem by 2020.

The free movement of people and animals in Kenya's Nyanza and Western Province areas, where sleeping sickness is endemic, has led to an increase in the number of infections.

"We are talking about 11 million people. This is serious; the government should step in to help eliminate the tsetse fly in that part of Kenya," Olet told Anadolu Agency.

In 1980, the Nyanza region and the Lake Victoria Basin area were both hit with an epidemic of sleeping sickness caused by the tsetse fly.

At the time, the WHO had stepped in to conduct aerial spraying in the affected area.

The 1980 sleeping sickness outbreak led to a wave of forced migration and the death of many residents of the Nyanza region.

Olet lamented the fact that sleeping sickness had been classified as one of the world's most neglected diseases.

"The tsetse fly is still making African states pay a handsome price for neglecting the diseases spread by them," she added.

"This is a disease [afflicting] the poor; if we continue neglecting it, we will be the losers," she warned.

Olet described the impact of sleeping sickness – on livestock, humans, tourism and crops as being enormous.

"When the tsetse fly infects animals in most areas of Kenya, you cannot get bulls to plough the land, meaning crop agriculture is directly affected," she explained.

"It affects the health of wild animals, livestock and also humans," she said. "It is a very dangerous disease and a major cause of poverty."

"Livestock accounts for 10 percent of Kenya's national agricultural GDP," Olet asserted.

"If something is not done urgently, we risk losing our livestock to Nagana," she warned, using a Zulu word meaning "powerless" to refer to infections among livestock.

Olet believes that if Kenya wins the battle against the tsetse fly, it will also have taken a step in the battle against food insecurity and poverty.

"A World Bank report says that, of the 25 poorest countries [in the world], 22 are tsetse-infested, so they have actually linked poverty to tsetse infestation," she told Anadolu Agency.

Olet asserted that greater awareness, at all levels, is required.

"The African Union has actually raised awareness in all the countries [in Africa] and has sensitised African heads of state on this issue," she told Anadolu Agency.

"This awareness must reach government agencies and should permeate all systems of government so it is prioritised as a poverty program and adequate resources [are made available] to fight it," said Olet.

"The national government has to work with [affected] counties very closely to eliminate this disease from the country and out of East Africa," she added.

She called for support for the continental campaign aimed at freeing Africa of sleeping sickness and the "Nagana" associated with it.

"More focus is now on eradication of the vector coordinated by the African Union," noted Olet. "The danger is that the drugs for treating sleeping sickness are not many and are very costly."

Olet said eradication of sleeping sickness in Kenya would involve raising awareness among government officials, political leaders and the public.

"The involvement and participation of communities in the actual killing of the vector requires a lot of capacity building," she noted.

The Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council said it was using scientific methods to free Kenya of the tsetse fly.

"We have had successes in Botswana, where aerial spraying has been used to make Botswana [tsetse] free," Olet told Anadolu Agency. "These are some of the techniques we are using."

She added: "We use the trapping of tsetse flies; we use the spraying of animals with pesticides so that when the flies come in contact with these animals, they die."

The Eradication Council, formed in 2012 by presidential legal notice, also carries out a periodic assessment of the disease's prevalence and vector levels with a view to eventually eradicating it.

Research is also being conducted on what's called "sterile insect technique," which relies on biological methods to eliminate the tsetse fly.