King's College London
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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease

Photo-set on sleeping sickness

Human trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, is a disease which is peculiar to Africa, and has been present in the continent for many centuries, if not from the earliest origin of human habitation. It is a chronic disease which is distributed across West and Central Africa at specific geographical locations, occurring often when man-created habitats meld into tropical rainforest.

Its transmission depends, among other factors, on the ecological relationship between the human and the tsetse fly. The tsetse fly transmits the trypanosome (or parasite) to the human host. The disease can produce a huge array of symptoms, a number of which can be confused with those of malaria, making diagnosis difficult.

Over a period of several months or years, the patient enters the final stage, when the parasites have invaded all the organs, and the symptoms of comatose sleep or death occur, giving the disease its name of ‘sleeping sickness’.

The loose leaf picture set reproduced below was one of a number published in the late 1940s with the intention of publicising the ostensibly enlightened and humanitarian aspects of British colonial rule, and of defending it against colonialism’s critics. The set depicts colonial medical work against sleeping sickness.

The breakthroughs in tropical medicine at the beginning of the 20th century, which occurred as a consequence of advances in bacteriology, parasitology and later through synthetic pharmacology, served throughout the colonial period as a justification for formal colonial rule in Africa.

The advent of colonial rule in Africa caused outbreaks of sleeping sickness, as the colonists advanced through the continent by river routes, which are among the habitats of the tsetse fly. Similar pre-colonial patterns of war and conquest in African history, resulting in the disturbance of settlement patterns, and therefore of the relationship between tsetse fly and human, had also resulted in similar outbreaks.

Because the trypanosome which produces sleeping sickness has the ability to evade the human host’s antibodies, efforts to produce vaccines were, until the late 1980s, ineffective and often produced harmful or fatal side effects.

The options open to colonial powers, apart from attempts at tsetse fly eradication (which were ineffective, as the ecological conditions for the spread of tsetse fly were exacerbated by the imposition of colonialism) were isolation, quarantine and resettlement, all of which provoked Africans’ resentment. They had, through many centuries of experience, devised ways of co-existing with the tsetse fly, which Europeans ignored.

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