A tsetse fly bite in rural Africa could cause Sleeping Sickness, but a new initiative in Uganda is successfully using blue flags to trap and kill these harmful vectors.
A small parasite, Trypanosoma brucei, is carried by a small proportion of tsetse flies in Africa. The parasite causes Sleeping Sickness, also known as African Trypanosomiasis, when humans or animals are bitten by a tsetse fly carrying the parasite. The infection can progress quickly or slowly, and initial symptoms are vague and relatively not alarming (fever, headache, malaise). The spread of the infection into the central nervous system causes more disturbing symptoms like personality changes, confusion, and sleep disruption. Sleeping Sickness can be fatal within months to three years (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Often Uganda natives with family members suffering from Sleeping Sickness don't understand what's happening to their loved ones. Even if they have access treatment, there's a small chance that they would even consider biomedicine as a cure for the disease. Beyond the 10,000 new cases of Sleeping Sickness recorded each year by the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC reports that "many cases go undiagnosed and unreported," an unfortunate statement since Sleeping Sickness can be cured if treatment is begun soon after infection. It is fatal is left untreated.
Cows and other animals can also be ravaged by sleeping sickness after receiving a bite from an infected tsetse fly.
The blue flags initiative to stop the spread of Sleeping Sickness through attacking the population of tsetse flies in Uganda has been successful because of the flies' unique attraction to the color blue. Entomologist Steve Torr says that the flies are attracted to blue since it "contrasts with the green vegetation." The flies gravitate toward the cloth because they see the blue traps as a potential target to bite. However, instead of finding a warm body, they find a flytrap smothered in insecticide waiting to kill them.
The traps are beneficial because they are inexpensive to produce, especially when the alternative is spraying large areas with insecticide. The latter approach is costly and dangerous to the environment.
The two-stage treatment medications for Sleeping Sickness are expensive to produce, but WHO has made multiple partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to ensure the treatment will be provided for free. Continuing to make these medicines easily available and along with the new blue flytrap initiative, the WHO will hopefully be enabled to achieve their goal of eliminating Sleeping Sickness as a public health problem by the end of 2020.
This Animal Planet video describes a traveler's experience of Sleeping Sickness after being bitten by a tsetse fly.
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