NKHOTAKOTA, MALAWI (AP) – The relocation of hundreds of elephants to Malawi’s largest wildlife reserve was meant to be a sign of hope and renewal in this southern African nation. Then nearby residents began falling ill.
The cause of the headaches, weakness and pain were trypanosomes, tiny parasites spread by the bite of the tsetste fly – a companion of the elephants. Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, is the result.
Local families described the toll the disease can take. “I feel too weak,” said Chiomba Njati, who was still recovering after a week in the hospital. He said he was bitten while farming near the wildlife reserve.
“I cannot even carry a hoe and farm. The home is lacking food and other important things because it is my wife doing everything on her own. This is so worrying.”
Authorities said the Nkhotakota wildlife reserve has seen a surge in tsetse fly numbers since around 2015 when the elephants and other game animals were reintroduced. The local hospital said it did not have a number of sleeping sickness cases. One community resident, Group Village Ngondo, recalled at least five deaths from the disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said sleeping sickness is endemic in 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa but cases have been dropping. Last year just under 1,000 cases were recorded, a new low. The majority of cases are reported in Congo.
The disease is “notoriously difficult to treat” with drugs and easier to treat when caught early, WHO said. The health agency said it is usually fatal when untreated as the parasite moves into the central nervous system and eventually can cause seizures and coma.