(Medicines Sans Frontieres has corrected the numbers of people affected to Â?thousandsÂ? from Â?10,000Â? in paragraph 1, and it has also corrected the infection rate to 4 percent from 40 percent in paragraph 6)
NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has warned that an outbreak of sleeping sickness in Democratic Republic of Congo's Haut-Uele province could become an epidemic, with thousands of people suffering from the parasitic disease.
The symptoms of sleeping sickness, which is spread by tsetse flies, include confusion and poor coordination, as well as disturbance of the sleep cycle, which gives the disease its name. Without treatment, sleeping sickness is fatal.
The disease is only found in sub-Saharan Africa, most commonly in remote rural areas where health systems are weak or non-existent.
Antoine Gauge, MSFÂ?s head of mission in the northeastern province, told AlertNet that Haut-Uele had become a sleeping sickness hotspot in the region and that the outbreak was at risk of turning into an epidemic.
Sleeping sickness is common in central Africa, but Gauge said Haut-Uele's figures are much higher than in previous years, giving it the highest infection rate in the region.
Â?ItÂ?s a critical situation because the infection rate for sleeping sickness is 4 percent in areas of Dingila and Doruma, and for us to bring it under control, we need to reduce it to 0.5 percent,Â? said Gauge.
Since 2008, insecurity and violence - exacerbated by military operations against the notorious Ugandan rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - have forced MSF to shut down nearly all its activities in the area.
But the situation has eased a little as LRA rebels, who have killed over 1,000 civilians and uprooted 100,000 more in Congo in the last two years, have been pushed towards southeastern parts of Central African Republic, according to U.N. reports.
"It is very difficult but not impossible, because we have to move in the bushes using our mobile clinics to look for and screen communities," said Gauge.
After years of conflict, most of Congo's vast northeast is severely impoverished and there are very few roads.
Haut-Uele province neighbours Uganda and Southern Sudan, and has long experienced sporadic conflict and political tension. Gauge said movement by the affected population across borders raised the risk of reactivating sleeping sickness in historically cleared pockets.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 50,000 to 70,000 people are affected by the disease each year in 36 African countries, with seven states accounting for 97 percent of all reported cases. The most recent epidemic began in 1970.
According to the WHO, the disease had almost disappeared by the mid-1960s. But surveillance was then relaxed, and there was a resurgence in several areas. Recent efforts by the organisation, aid groups and national control programmes have stopped and begun to reverse the upward trend of new cases, the world body says.
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