Sleeping sickness still thrives in poor communities

Although many countries have eliminated sleeping sickness, it continues to affect several communities in Uganda, especially those who are poor, with limited access to health care services.

Monday April 28 2014

John Ocohn Ocung (abung (above) speaks during the i

John Ocohn Ocung (abung (above) speaks during the interview. Photo by PAUL MENYA 


It did not occur to John Ocung that he was suffering from sleeping sickness because tests from the clinics he visited always concluded that he had malaria. Even though he was on medication, it did not relieve his pain.

Then, he developed severe headache, a visual blackout and paralysis in his left leg. His wife, who was worried that he would not survive, suggested they turn to prayers. Ocung resisted. Eventually, he ended up at Lwala Hospital in Otuboi Sub-county, Kaberamaido District.

“I did not know I had sleeping sickness because I was always diagnosed with malaria. Their treatment never healed me,” Ocung narrates from his hospital bed at Lwala, where he has spent a week receiving treatment after doctors confirmed he was suffering from sleeping sickness.

“I suffered severe headache, I could not see clearly and always felt my leg was paralysed. I could not sleep at night and could do so mostly during the day, between 8am and 2pm,” Ocung recalls.

He adds: “I wish I had come to the hospital earlier. I now feel better with the medication I am receiving. My leg is improving and I can now get some sleep. However, I still get headache, a cold, and pass urine frequently.”
Ocung, 55, a father of eight, is optimistic that he will be cured of the disease soon.

Late-stage disease
Charles Elamu, the Kaberamaido District vector control officer says in Ocung’s case, the disease was already at an advanced stage. It had therefore affected his central nervous system.

During this stage, patients develop visual problems, they feel sleepy most of the time and their speech becomes incoherent.

Like Ocung, Moses Eryengu initially relied on malaria drugs which he got from his drug shop in Soroti Town to treat his illness. Little did he know, at the time, that it was sleeping sickness that was keeping him ill most of the time.

“I was weak and could not even stand up. I was admitted to hospital. Tests confirmed I had sleeping sickness and not malaria. I felt relieved because at least I now knew what it was. I even thought I had been bewitched because of the on-and-off fever and body weakness,” he says.

He adds that if he had remained in Soroti treating malaria and typhoid, he would have succumbed to sleeping sickness.

In Eryengu’s case though, when the first tests were carried out, it showed that his disease was in the early stages. Subsequently, he started treatment and after successful completion of the dose, further tests showed he had been cured.

He was discharged from hospital in January. “My only problem now is that I spit a lot, even at night. When I move long distances I become dizzy and it becomes difficuly for me to walk in the sun,” he says.

“This illness has set me back in my business and the education of my children and siblings because I have no income to pay for their fees,” he says, adding: “I am confident I will re-organise myself when I fully recover.” Lwala Hospital is the only treatment centre for sleeping sickness in Lango sub-region.

Those with symptoms have to go through two painful lumbar punctures where fluids are sucked from their cerebral spinal code and taken for analysis in the laboratory. The second puncture is usually carried out if one has not cured from the first dose of medication.

When infection happens
In Kaberamaido District, the number of sleeping sickness cases is usually high between December and January, and drops from February to April.

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