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Sleeping sickness hits new low

The tsetse fly. IAEA
For the first time in half a century, the number of new diagnosed cases of human African trypanosomiasis -also known as sleeping sickness - has dropped below 10,000 thanks to partnerships with drug companies and improved screening, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

The parasite, spread by infected tsetse flies mostly found in rural sub-Saharan Africa, can invade a person’s central nervous system and lead to psychiatric and sleep disorders, and if untreated, death. Because of under-reporting, estimates of the actual number of infections range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

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In 2009, there were 9,877 new reported cases compared with 17,600 in 2004 and 38,000 in 1998. “The historic drop in cases is the result of improved and persistent field activities and of active systematic screening,” Pere Simarro, head of WHO’s Human African Trypanosomiasis Programme, told IRIN. More health centres in 36 endemic sub-Saharan countries are diagnosing the disease.

Though 72 percent more people were tested from 2000-2009 than during the previous decade, scientists say lack of low-tech, rapid testing and safe drugs has prevented the elimination of the disease. The highest number of cases were reported in Democratic Republic of Congo (80 percent), followed by Central African Republic (11 percent).

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