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Challenges of controlling sleeping sickness in areas of violent conflict: experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Jacqueline Tong1*, Olaf Valverde2, Claude Mahoudeau1, Oliver Yun1 and François Chappuis13

Author Affiliations

1 Médecins Sans Frontières, Rue de Lausanne 78, 1211 Geneva, Switzerland

2 Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, 15 Chemin Louis Dunant, 1202 Geneva, Switzerland

3 Geneva University Hospitals, 4 rue Gabrielle-Perret-Gentil, 1211 Geneva 14, Switzerland

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Conflict and Health 2011, 5:7  doi:10.1186/1752-1505-5-7

Published: 26 May 2011



Human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), or sleeping sickness, is a fatal neglected tropical disease if left untreated. HAT primarily affects people living in rural sub-Saharan Africa, often in regions afflicted by violent conflict. Screening and treatment of HAT is complex and resource-intensive, and especially difficult in insecure, resource-constrained settings. The country with the highest endemicity of HAT is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has a number of foci of high disease prevalence. We present here the challenges of carrying out HAT control programmes in general and in a conflict-affected region of DRC. We discuss the difficulties of measuring disease burden, medical care complexities, waning international support, and research and development barriers for HAT.


In 2007, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) began screening for HAT in the Haut-Uélé and Bas-Uélé districts of Orientale Province in northeastern DRC, an area of high prevalence affected by armed conflict. Through early 2009, HAT prevalence rate of 3.4% was found, reaching 10% in some villages. More than 46,000 patients were screened and 1,570 treated for HAT during this time. In March 2009, two treatment centres were forced to close due to insecurity, disrupting patient treatment, follow-up, and transmission-control efforts. One project was reopened in December 2009 when the security situation improved, and another in late 2010 based on concerns that population displacement might reactivate historic foci. In all of 2010, 770 patients were treated at these sites, despite a limited geographical range of action for the mobile teams.


In conflict settings where HAT is prevalent, targeted medical interventions are needed to provide care to the patients caught in these areas. Strategies of integrating care into existing health systems may be unfeasible since such infrastructure is often absent in resource-poor contexts. HAT care in conflict areas must balance logistical and medical capacity with security considerations, and community networks and international-response coordination should be maintained. Research and development for less complicated, field-adapted tools for diagnosis and treatment, and international support for funding and program implementation, are urgently needed to facilitate HAT control in these remote and insecure areas.