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Sleeping sickness epidemic feared in Congo

More than 10,000 people in DRC have come down with the parasitic disease sleeping sickness, warn medical aid workers. More than 10,000 cases of the deadly disease have been logged just in the country’s Haut-Uele area, according to reports from Reuters news service. The area is now a hotspot in the region and risks turning into an epidemic say medics in the area.

While the illness is common in central Africa, Haut-Uele's figures are much higher than in previous years, giving it the highest infection rate in the region. In some parts 40 per cent or more of the people are infected. For the disease to be considered under control, the infection rates must be reduced to 0.5 per cent. Symptoms of sleeping sickness, or Human African Trypanosomiasis, include confusion and poor coordination, as well as sleep disturbance, which is how the disease gets its name. Without treatment, sleeping sickness is fatal. Sleeping sickness, is a disease spread by a parasite carried by the tsetse fly. People can have it for years and suffer nothing worse than fever and headaches. But once the parasite gets into the brain, their condition deteriorates and they become withdrawn and unresponsive or aggressive, deranged and hyperactive. But the disease is curable with a drug nick-named ‘the resurrection drug’ for its dramatic powers to bring back patients from the edge of death. Although years of conflict, have left most of Congo's vast north east severely impoverished and there are very few roads, so it is tough to get medical aid through. 

Every year between 50,000 and 70,000 people are affected by the disease in 36 African countries, according to figures from The World Health Organisation (WHO). There have been several epidemics in Africa over the last century mostly in Uganda and the Congo Basin. An epidemic in 1920 was controlled by mobile teams who organized the screening of millions of people at risk. By the mid 1960s, the disease had almost died out. But after that success, monitoring was scaled down, and the disease reappeared in several areas over the last 30 years. Recent efforts by WHO, along with national control programmes and work by aid organistaions had since started to reverse the upward trend of new cases. Congo is striving to recover from five-year conflict of 1998-2003; millions died, mostly through starvation, disease in Africa's ‘world war.’

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children