Sleepy vs Sleeping Sickness

Working through WW Campbell’s East Africa by Motor Lorry (reprinted with additions by GWAA), I was intrigued to read about ‘sleeping sickness … (which, by the way, is not to be confused with sleepy sickness)’. I just had to look up sleepy sickness.

This sleepy sickness is not caused by the tsetse fly which causes sleeping sickness, otherwise known as trypanosomiasis. Its cause is not known and it apparently presents with typical flu symptoms by which time it’s too late to prevent the virus from attacking the brain. Its official name is Encephalitis lethargica and it was identified about 1915/6. An Austrian neurologist Constantin von Economo and the pathologist Jean-René Cruchet brought it to world wide attention. Over its run between 1915 and early 1920 approximately 1 million people died from it but its impact was swamped by the Spanish Influenza pandemic which caused the death of over 5 million people world wide (January 1918 to December 1920). At the time of writing, Corona had resulted in fewer than 150,000 cases world wide, with 4,300 deaths (www.worldometers.info – 11 March 2020), a month later these figures had risen to 1,872,014 cases with 116,071 (13 April 2020) . Howard Phillips provides some interesting insights regarding the 1918 flu.

Thoughts of Sleepy Sickness having disappeared were dispelled in 1993 when Professor John Oxford diagnosed it in a young girl which led to further investigations. A linked disease/variation is Parkinsonism popularly brought to public attention in the Oliver Sacks 1973 book and film, Awakenings.

Sleeping Sickness or trypanosomiasis gained notoriety during the First World War for the number of animals who died as a result of it. Misinformation given to (through ignorance, as we know the British held maps of German East Africa were poor) the South African investigators in late 1915 as to the feasibility of horse-power in the East African theatre resulted in the mounted forces suffering extraordinary losses when they hit tsetse fly areas, by which time it was too late to save the animals. The demands of the theatre and drive to push the Germans into a corner, led to all, including animals, being asked to give their all. Today, trypanosomiasis is still prevalent in 36 African countries affecting both humans and animals. Concerted efforts have been implemented following an outbreak in the 1970s with the result that by 2030 it is hoped the disease will be completely eradicated.

2 thoughts on “Sleepy vs Sleeping Sickness

  1. Pingback: The war of the insect | Anne Samson - Historian

  2. Pingback: Ox-Taming | Anne Samson - Historian

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