University of Edinburgh initiative saves thousands of lives from sleeping sickness

Thousands of lives have been saved in northern Uganda as a result of a new research initiative from the University of Edinburgh to tackle sleeping sickness.

The initiative, which involved eliminating a deadly parasite from livestock, has accomplished a 90 per cent fall in cases of the sickness in humans.  It was put forward  in 2006 in collaboration with the UK government, the European Union, and the Wellcome Trust.

Sleeping sickness is caused by a trypanosome parasite, transported by tsetse flies which attack the nervous system. It can be fatal for human beings if untreated, and used to cause 100 deaths every day in Uganda’s Northern Region. Its symptoms are similar to malaria and it often leads those affected to experience rabies-like madness and death.

Professor Susan Welburn, Vice-Principal for Global Access, led the University of Edinburgh’s research.

Welburn and her team have acted in Uganda alongside the Mackerere University’s research team, based in Kampala, to treat livestock from seven different districts in northern Uganda with  anti-parasitic drugs Veridium or Veriben.

As a result, cases of cattle with sleeping sickness have dropped by 90 per cent, which translates to a 75 per cent decrease in cases of human beings infected with the disease.

The injections also protect livestock from other parasites, fevers, and health issues such as anemia. Professor Welburn explained to The Student that farmers looked favourably upon this measure once informed that the University of Edinburgh’s project offered them treatments that would strengthen the health of their entire herd, consequently diminishing farmers’ financial losses.

“An injectable treatment for a cow is very cheap”, Welburn told The Student, with each injection costing just 50 cents. Welburn also added that they are, “reliable, widespread, available” and easy to apply.

In order to achieve long-term protection, Welburn and her colleagues carried out interventions at a village scale, which consisted of spraying all animals’ stomachs and legs with Veridium, a special insecticide.

They reached the conclusion that if sprayed “religiously every month”, farmers could protect their animals from the disease. Over 400,000 cows were sprayed monthly with Veridium.

“The only small issue is that if you give an animal an injection… you shouldn’t eat that animal for a couple of weeks,” Welburn told The Student.

Treatments for human beings involve injections and chemotherapy that have been characterised as “painful” and risky. Thus, they have been avoided.

Welburn’s current objective is to “roll it into a bigger scale” and treat 2.7 million cows thrice over a period of three years across the country.

Welburn also informed The Student that despite the disease’s lethal consequences, sleeping sickness often is not properly treated in health centres as symptoms are frequently confused with those of malaria and facilities are limited and precarious.

Experts have also had to confront people’s stigma and superstitions about sleeping sickness when in the field. Welburn recalled Ugandan citizens describing sick families as “bewitched” and pointed out that this was partly due to a lack of information and reporting on the disease.

Image: Children in Bwezzi Bweera, near Luweero, Uganda.  Credit: Jake Stimpson

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