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[KAMPALA] Scientists in Uganda have called for the international community take more interest in sleeping sickness and help combat the disease.

They say that drugs currently used to treat the disease are old and toxic, and that sleeping sickness warrants a higher research priority because of its threat to health.

The comments were made at a meeting in Kampala, Uganda, this week (5 March), organised by the Ugandan Ministries of Health and Agriculture, together with UK-based communication company WRENmedia. Participants discussed the human cost of sleeping sickness and the results of recent studies conducted in northern Uganda.

In Uganda alone over nine million people are at risk of infection from the disease, caused by the parasite Trypanosoma. Yet only 20 per cent of these people have access to diagnostic services, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

"Long-term failure by the West to help Africa control the spread of tsetse flies — which spread the disease — has resulted in [the flies] multiplying, attacking larger areas and infecting hundreds of thousands of Africans," said Dawson Mbulamberi from the Ugandan Health Ministry.

Mbulamberi and Fred Kansiime, from the Ministry of Agriculture's Coordinating Office for Control of Trypanosomiasis, said that once someone contracts sleeping sickness death is certain without fast diagnosis and treatment.

Abbas Kakembo, a senior field officer in the Ministry of Health, revealed that over 500,000 people are infected with the disease in Uganda.

"One of the serious constraints is that drugs [available for treating sleeping sickness] are old and toxic, particularly melarsoprol and eflornithine. And in one of the worst-hit areas — Arua District close to DRC and South Sudan — 30 per cent of those treated had resistance to drugs," he said.

Kakembo added that only five per cent of those infected are under surveillance or have access to medical care.

Miriam Nanyunja, disease prevention and control officer at the WHO, agreed that more should be done to tackle the disease. However, she said the Ugandan Ministry of Agriculture should more strongly support health experts in efforts to trap tsetse flies and train farmers to cut down bushes where the flies live.

The WHO has indicated that the two types of the sleeping sickness parasite — gambiese from West Africa and rhodesiense from Zimbabwe — are likely to overlap in Uganda, making it difficult to diagnose and treat the disease correctly (see Double parasite threat of sleeping sickness in Uganda).

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