Sleeping Sickness is the deadliest disease in the world. The Democratic Republic of Congo suffers more cases than any other country. Without treatment, parasites called trypanosomes invade the victim’s brain, ravage their sleep cycle, driving them mad before finally killing them. But dedicated doctors and medics are fighting back. In this television documentary produced for the BBC we tell the stories of those who have lost family to the disease and of the lucky ones who have survived this deadly disease. This is the heart-rending story of people who have to keep fighting to survive, despite this terrible disease taking lives in their villages every day. Last year, Reagan lost four brothers to disease. One of them died from sleeping sickness.
Now, in spite of his mother’s fears and efforts, Reagan himself has fallen victim to the parasites – Trypanasomes – that cause deadly sleeping sickness. The parasites enter the body through the bites of the Tsetse fly, common along the banks of the Congo and in the village of Nioki, where Reagan lives. Nioki has a population of 35,000 and patients here are treated for free, the cost of their treatment covered by foreign aid. Reagan’s condition is not good. His mother Zozo noticed changes in his behaviour. He started sleeping in school. That’s when she decided to bring him to the hospital, leaving his brothers and sisters to fend for themselves back home.
The bites of the Tsetse flies are clearly visible on Reagan’s body and it is likely that the parasites are now in his brain. Left untreated, his condition will be fatal. He is given an injection of Melarsoprol, an extremely dangerous treatment based on an arsenic compound. It kills the parasites, but can cause fatal inflammation of the brain, killing one patient in 20. It is so corrosive that it is kept in glass bottles, as it melts plastic containers. Half of all patients that have an adverse reaction to the treatment will die. Reagan reacts badly to the injection. It causes him to go into shock. He’s given an anti-inflammatory drug to stabilise him and it works. He survives the Melarsoprol this time, but will need a full course of injections to kill all the parasites in his body. Without the injections, he will die. With them, there’s a high risk of him having another bad and potentially life threatening reaction to the drug. Melarsoprol is the only treatment available to him in Nioki. Luckily, Reagan survived both the injections and his illness and made a full recovery. However, due to the lack of supplies and the dangers of Melarsoprol, many others like him are not so lucky.