Prevalence of sleeping sickness inordinately high in Congo-Brazzaville

With the MSF sleeping sickness programme now fully functioning in the Plateaux province of Congo-Brazzaville, the initial results indicate a very high prevalence of the disease. The project was first established in April this year and was fully functioning by mid-June.

Human African trypanosomiasis, better known as sleeping sickness, is a fatal neurological disease if left untreated. But even the current cure can kill.

"Up to now we have actively screened 1,570 people in Gombona town and surroundings", says country coordinator Sonja van Osch. "There we found an overall prevalence of 6,5%. This is terribly high".

MSF, which has been working in Congo-Brazzaville since 1997, started up the sleeping-sickness programme when it noticed signs that the deadly disease may have reached epidemic proportions in parts of the country. The health system is in ruins after years of civil war and there is no reliable epidemiological data.

"We felt that we should start an intervention in Plateaux, since we suspected that province to be one of the centres of the epidemic," Sonya explained.

The Plateaux province borders the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the other side of the Congo River, which marks the border, MSF other NGOs have been running sleeping-sickness programmes for several years and treating thousands of patients. The new MSF programme has already saved ten lives up till now and seems set to save many more.

"Once the active screening got started in the provinces, people got word from it and came to the referral hospital themselves", Sonya says. "This passive screening will form a significant addition to the outreach we do ourselves. People come from all over. Even foreigners who happen to be in the area come to our mobile clinics because they have heard about our programmes, even as far away as Cameroon or the Central-African Republic."