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What is Trypanosomiasis?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 December 2017
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There are several very serious illnesses called trypanosomiasis. Two of these occur in Africa and are known as East and West African trypanosomiasis, and the other occurs in South and Central America and is called Chagas disease. They have in common with each other the fact that they are protozoan infections, mostly transmitted by insects, though other methods of transmission can exist.

In Africa, tsetse flies may transmit the disease, and the offender in South America is the kissing bug. It’s not that these bugs are actually the problem; it’s simply that they transmit parasites called trypanosomes, which cause serious human health issues. There are also trypanosome infections of animals in various locations in the world.

Versions of African trypanosomiasis affecting people are often known by the name sleeping sickness. They are treatable if the condition is recognized and medication is given in time. Though they’re split into two different regions, symptoms of both are fairly similar. People might begin by noticing a red sore called a chancre after being bitten by a tsetse fly. Most then develop flulike symptoms such as aches, fever, swollen glands, and headaches, followed by development of rash.

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When the condition is not treated, things can become much more difficult quickly because the parasite affects the central nervous system. People may become confused, have extreme mood changes, and usually have a shortened life span. The difference between East and West African trypanosomiasis may be the rate at which people succumb to secondary symptoms and eventually death. The East African form is more severe, occurs more quickly, and is associated with more risk of death and far shorter lifespan after infection.

Both illnesses are extremely severe, however, and there is no vaccination or prevention. Moreover, people are not immune once they’ve had the condition, and are able to get it again. Best-case scenario is to get treatment as soon as possible after noticing symptoms. What is fortunate about either African form of this illness is there exists reliable proven treatment. Unfortunately, treatment for American or South American trypanosomiasis is not as effective, since people may not know until well after infection that they are sick.

Chagas disease may take several months after a bite with kissing bug before it is expressed. It typically causes fever and aches, swollen eyelids, and some swelling around the area where the bug bite occurred, though there may be no initial symptoms. However, at a later point about half of the people exposed to this parasite develop cardiovascular symptoms which can include increased risk for stroke. This may be paired with intestinal upset.

The best chance at treatment occurs when people are first infected, in the acute stage of the illness, which lasts from four to eight weeks. The fact that the illness may be asymptomatic makes treatment impossible for some. American trypanosomiasis is often contracted by kids, and they may progress well past the acute stage without receiving treatment when chances are best of actually killing the disease with either nifurtimox or benznidazole, both anti-parasitic drugs.

Trypanosomiasis poses a significant risk to humans, but the countries in which the diseases most occur are least equipped to develop a cure. The onus is on countries with greater scientific development to find or develop cures for illnesses that claim thousands of lives per year. The fact, for instance, that the two drugs used to treat Chagas disease are 30 years old deserves some scrutiny. Fortunately there is research underway for new drugs to treat these illnesses, and hope that vaccines could be developed to prevent contagion in the future.

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