African Sleeping Sickness Shrouded in Superstition

Martin Zoutane Daba, Yahoo! News, June 10, 2012

A frail 65-year-old woman sitting under the mango trees in a rural village in Chad suffers from a tropical disease that eats into the brain, and the locals blame on witchcraft.

“I’ve been suffering for more than two months now. I have headaches, fever, and I just feel very tired,” said Lea Sadene, who has just been tested and diagnosed.

She has Human African trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness, which is transmitted by tsetse flies found in 36 sub-Saharan African countries.

Sadene is in the first phase of the often fatal illness. Without treatment in four months to a year, “the parasite penetrates into the brain, causing serious neurological symptoms, until death,” said Doctor Benedict Blaynay, head of neglected tropical diseases at French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.

“The symptoms can cause a change in personality, mental deterioration, leading to a long sleep or coma,” which gives the illness its name, he said.

Chadian health officials say around 3,300 people were infected between 2001 and 2011 in several areas of the landlocked central African nation, one of the poorest in the world.


{snip} For the people living in Chad’s rural communities, the strange symptoms of sleeping sickness have long been shrouded in superstition about witchcraft and demonic possession.

“Before we didn’t know that it was the disease that was killing people. People died like flies, they blamed witches,” said Alngar Legode, a village mother trying to comfort her eight-month child still crying after being pricked for the blood test for the disease.

“Witchcraft is seen as a real phenomenon in traditional societies,” said sociologist Serferbe Charlot. “They think that a man or a woman suspected of witchcraft is eating away at a person’s soul.”

In the advanced stages of the disease the infected person experiences severe neurological problems.

“When this disease reaches the brain, the patient loses control of his life, he even becomes violent. That is when the villagers believe that the sick person is possessed by evil spirits,” said Charlot.

“It is up to the health specialists to prove” to the population that it is not witchcraft, he said, adding: “The fight against sleeping sickness calls for raising awareness.”


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