African Sleeping Sickness: A Recurring Epidemic

African trypanosomiasis is making an unwelcome comeback. But unlike other returning diseases, this one has a drug treatment—eflornithine—that disappeared from the market when it failed to cure cancer. Yet like Viagra's origin from a curious side effect in a clinical trial, so too was eflornithine reborn. "When it was discovered that it removes mustaches in women, it suddenly had a market: western women with mustaches," says Morten Rostrup, president of the international council for M

Ricki Lewis
May 12, 2002
African trypanosomiasis is making an unwelcome comeback. But unlike other returning diseases, this one has a drug treatment—eflornithine—that disappeared from the market when it failed to cure cancer. Yet like Viagra's origin from a curious side effect in a clinical trial, so too was eflornithine reborn. "When it was discovered that it removes mustaches in women, it suddenly had a market: western women with mustaches," says Morten Rostrup, president of the international council for Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders.

Thanks to efforts by MSF, the immediate future for those with sleeping sickness looks considerably brighter than the recent past, but the long-term prognosis isn't clear. The story of the reemergence of this disorder vividly captures the clash between the medical priorities of the developed and developing worlds.

The popular name of African trypanosomiasis—sleeping sickness—underestimates the disease's severity. Tsetse flies transmit two subspecies of the pathogen Trypanosoma...