Human african trypansomiasis (sleeping sickness)

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  • Caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma brucei
    • Two distinct sub-species exist T. brucei rhodesiense and T. brucei gambiense
      • rhodesiense - Eastern and Southeastern Africa
        • Transmitted by tsetse flies that live in woodlands on the savanah
      • gambiense - Central and Western Africa (More common of the two infections)
        • Transmitted by tsetse flies that live in denser vegetation and along rivers
      • Crude demarcation line runs through the Great Rift Valley
  • Endemic in 36 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and about 30,000 are currently infected
  • Spread by the Tsetse fly
  • Data from 2009 and 2011 suggest that the prevalence is decreasing
  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo reported about 80% of new cases in 2012
  • Vertical Transmission (Mother to fetus) is also possible

Clinical Features

  • Clinical syndromes produced by T. brucei gambiense and T. brucei rhodesiense are similar in nature, however the rhodesience strain is much more rapidly progressive and can present with fulminant disease over the course of a few months, not years like the gambiense strain
  • May present differently in travelers

Early symptoms

  • Known as the hemolymphatic stage
  • Chancre
    • May be earliest sign
    • Painful, well circumscribed, rubbery lesion. (More common with rhodesiense sp.)
  • Intermittent symptoms corresponding to waves of parasitemia
    • Fever, headache, malaise, arthralgias, rash, pruritis
  • Physical exam features
    • Hepatomegaly, splenomegaly, generalized lymphadenopathy (posterior cervical chain most common [Winterbottom's sign])

Late symptoms

  • 100% fatal if untreated
  • Involvement of the CNS
    • Progressive meningoencephalitis
    • Brain edema
    • Cerebral microhemorrhages
    • Multifocal white matter demyelination
    • Mott cells in CSF
      • Activated plasma cells with IgM inclusions
    • Neurologic symptoms
      • Headache, personality changes, inability to concentrate, difficulty with complex mental tasks, psychosis, ataxia, alteration of wake/sleep cycles, parkinsonian like movements
      • Eventually progresses to the point where the patient is stuporous and/or in a comatose state


  • Direct visualization of the trypanosomes (Gold Standard)
    • Can use either wet or dry prep
    • Samples can include CSF, blood, lymph node aspirates, and chancre aspirates
      • Must examine CSF to staging and treatment purposes
    • Low levels of parasitemia may require concentration of sample
  • Serologic testing
    • Card agglutination test for trypansomiasis (CATT)
      • Agglutination of freeze dried trypanosomes
    • Useful for epidemiologic studies
  • CSF analysis
    • Pleocytosis
    • Elevated protein levels
    • Mott cells
    • Direct visualization of trypanosome
  • Imaging
    • MRI - hyperintense signals in periventricular white matter
    • EEG - Delta waves


  • LP & CSF studies
  • Analysis for trypanosomes
  • MRI
  • EEG


Early treatment (Hemolymphatic stage)

  • Pentamide (T.b. gambiense)
  • Sumarin (T.b. rhodesience)

Late Treatment (Neurologic stage)

  • Eflornithine for 14 days (T.b. gambiense only, no activity against T.b. rhodesience)
    • Can combo with nifurtimox
      • More effective than Eflornithine alone
  • Melarsoprol for 12 days (T.b. rhodesience)
    • Can combo with nifurtimox also
    • Less effective than Eflornithine


  • Repeat LP Q 6months for 2 years

See Also