When War Gives Sickness a New Lease on Life
A horrendous disease called Sleeping Sickness was close to being eradicated but war in Sudan gave it a new lease on life.
Carl Zimmer is a science writer, lecturer, and frequent guest on such radio programs as Fresh Air and This American Life. His books include "Soul Made Flesh," "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea," and "Parasite Rex." In addition to writing books, Zimmer contributes articles to The New York Times, as well as magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. From 1994 to 1998 Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor and writes a monthly column about the brain.
Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Zimmer is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
There are lots of diseases in the tropics that we fortunately don’t have to contend with in places like the United States and we should consider ourselves fortunate because some of them are really horrendous.
A particularly horrendous one is called Sleeping Sickness. Sleeping Sickness is caused by a single celled organism called a trypanosome and it looks like a little fluke or a kind of a flatworm under a microscope, but it’s obviously much tinier than that. They are carried inside certain kinds of flies in Africa and these flies will bite people and they will inject these parasites, the trypanosomes, into humans who then start to get sick. They develop Sleeping Sickness, which not surprisingly makes you very tired and rundown.
The real problem is that unless you treat it, it is quite fatal and so it’s a serious problem, particularly in the belt just below the Sahara. One hundred years ago it was quite a serious problem, much more serious than it is today, but it’s been gradually eradicated from a lot of places where it was a big problem. It was eradicated through good public health, through treating people and through trying to attack the populations of the flies to basically break the cycle of transmission and it has worked in a lot of places.
This is a story that has been replicated with a number of parasites, with for example, a parasite that causes something called River Blindness. It’s a worm that actually gets into your system and can get into your eye and inflames your eye and scars it until you’re blind. That is being very nicely eradicated and other diseases as well.
Sleeping Sickness was getting close to that kind of eradication or at least being really driven down to very tiny levels, but unfortunately the war in Sudan gave it a new lease on life and so there have been in the past ten or twenty years new flare-ups of Sleeping Sickness. It’s a real testament to the devastation that war can have. It isn’t just people being killed by bullets. It’s also people being killed by parasites as well.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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