Bacteria may fight sleeping sickness

Scientists believe they have found a potential cure to Africa's "sleeping sickness" by manipulating a bacteria found inside the tsetse fly.

Human African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, is fatal if untreated and it is estimated about 30,000 people are currently infected with the disease. It is widely considered to be one of Africa’s many “neglected” diseases.

In the 1960s the disease was nearly eradicated. But in the past two decades the disease has “made a comeback of epidemic proportions due to war, population movements, and the collapse of health systems,” according to Doctors Without Borders.

Sleeping sickness is transmitted to humans and animals by bites from tsetse flies. Once the disease reaches its second stage in humans, the current treatments, using a type of synthetic arsenic, are excruciatingly painful and actually kill 5 to 20 percent of patients. The treatments are described by patients as "fire in the veins," Doctors Without Borders reports.

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The Science and Development Network says despite at least a century of study, there is no known cure.

"The older drugs were introduced over 60 years ago," David Horn, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the network. "They were known to kill the parasites but nothing was known about their molecular mechanism."

Scientists say they have now found bacteria on the tsetse flies that naturally blocks the transmission of sleeping sickness. Belgium experts have genetically altered the bacteria, so it attacks the other bacteria — the one spreading the disease. “This is a neat and promising concept,” Horn told the BBC.

Published in Microbial Cell Factories, these new findings are not only significant to current patients, but the future of the disease. Bacteria that blocks the disease is passed from mother to child, according to News Track India.

Last month, Voice of America reported another discovery in the fight against sleeping sickness. A new screening technique is helping scientists understand why currently available treatments are ineffective, which could lead to the development of “new and better drugs.”

Despite recent developments, however, it is still unknown when — or if — there will be a cure.

More from GlobalPost: Eliminating Neglected Tropical Diseases

In its first stages, sleeping sickness symptoms are innocuous, such as fever and weakness. The disease is hard to diagnose, but easy to treat, Doctors Without Borders says.

But in one of the poorest regions of the world, many cases go untreated and the second stage of the disease claims its victim. Doctors Without Borders reports: “This stage may be characterized by confusion, violent behavior or convulsions. Named after one of its most striking symptoms, patients with sleeping sickness experience an inability to sleep during the night but are overcome by sleep during the day. If left untreated, the disease inevitably leads to coma and death.”

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