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A new experimental drug treatment given to cattle in Uganda has cut the sleeping sickness cattle infection rate by 75 percent, which means fewer humans are getting infected. The drug is a dual treatment that kills both the parasites that cause sleeping sickness and the flies that carry them.

The sleeping sickness, also known as African Trypanosomiasis, is transmitted through bites from tsetse flies, which are prevalent in the rural areas of sub-Saharan African countries.

The human pathogenic parasites that cause the sleeping sickness can be harbored by both humans and animals. However, only certain tsetse flies can carry the parasite.

The campaign to end the epidemic of sleeping sickness in northern Uganda started in 2006 and was led by Dr. Susan Welburn, a zoonotic disease specialist at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. At the time, two types of trypanosome parasites overlapped geographically, killing more than 100 people per day.

Dr. Welburn and her researchers, in partnership with the veterinary school of Uganda’s Makerere University, injected more than 400,000 cows in seven rural districts with the anti-parasitic drug Veridium. To prevent fly bites they sprayed the legs, bellies and ears of the cattle with a long-lasting insecticide called Vectocid.

The researchers have set up small-scale local businesses that provide the preventative treatment for farmers. Dr. Welburn admits it has been a challenge to convince farmers to herd their cows to get treatment, as cattle infected with sleeping sickness parasites do not show symptoms.

“The disease has moved into eight new districts in Uganda in as many years as people travel more and sell their cattle across the country,” Dr. Welburn said.

Dr. Welburn predicts that eradicating sleeping sickness will take eight years of constant treatment. “It would require dedicated management from the government,” she said. “That’s why this project needs to break away from scientists and be owned by the community.”

The team plans to expand its treatment across Uganda to 2.7 million cattle.

Marie Helene Ngom

Sources: NYtimes, WHO, SciDevNet
Photo: Flickr