Human African trypanosomiasis

The history of sleeping sickness

Fourth International Cours on African Trypanosomoses
Tunis, 11-28 October 2005

Peter de Raadt


The three essential elements for transmission of Sleeping Sickness are the tsetse (Glossina), trypanosomes and mammalian hosts man included. The occurrence of the three together at the same place and time is not sufficient: exposure of man to tsetse must be regular and frequent. Such exposure depends on human behaviour plus a variety of hazardous circumstances: the "chance occurrence". We can speculate but not fully understand how man and its predecessors from their earliest appearance have been able to live with tsetse and trypanosomiasis risk.

From the history of Sleeping Sickness we learn how, throughout African history, climatic, environmental, social and economic changes have been determinant in the emergence and spread of the disease. Eight significant historical episodes from prehistory to independence are discussed.