Once the bane of sub-Saharan Africa, sleeping sickness is agonisingly close to being wiped out, but only if countries — and donors — keep up their guard, say, scientists.
The disease, transmitted to humans by the tsetse fly, was once a curse in 30 countries.
But a coordinated global fight to eradicate it has borne fruit, leading to a 95-per cent fall in cases over the past 15 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Last year, the agency recorded only 977 cases, compared to a peak of some 300,000 in the 1990s. Its hope is that sleeping sickness will enter the history books by 2030.
Sleeping sickness — human African trypanosomiasis — is caused by the Trypanosoma parasite, which is transmitted to humans by the tsetse when it takes a blood meal.
The disease is fatal unless diagnosed and treated rapidly. Early symptoms are severe headaches and muscle aches and fever.
Sufferers feel lethargic and sleepy by day then awake and exhausted at night. Neuropsychiatric and sensory disorders follow, then a coma before death ensues within months or sometimes even years later.
“Sleeping sickness is scary — when someone has it, it makes them mad,” said Emile Gouribitiali, 56, a villager in central Ivory Coast whose mother and younger brother both fell ill.
But scientists say this dreaded disease is on the ropes.
“After a century of fighting it, sleeping sickness is on the verge of being eradicated,” said Dr Dramane Kaba, an entomologist and director of the Pierre Richet Institute (IPR) at Bouake in central Ivory Coast.
“Sleeping sickness has almost stopped being a public health problem in Africa,” he said. “But we have to maintain our efforts.”
The institute, founded in 1970, specialises in insect-transmitted diseases including malaria, dengue, zika and chikungunya.
Meticulous task –
Despite the progress, “pockets of resistance” remain, says Kaba.
They include the Democratic Republic of Congo — home to 80 per cent of cases — and Guinea, where health programmes have been ravaged by the Ebola crisis.
It is also difficult to gain an accurate assessment in areas of armed conflict.
If the overall outlook is relatively favourable, there must be no let-up towards eradication, Kaba insists.
He points to the fact that after a campaign against the illness from the 1920s through to the 1960s “vigilance then dropped off and the illness returned”.
Combatting the spread of the disease requires meticulous work to break the chain of transmission and kill the parasite, said Vincent Jamonneau at France’s Research Institute for Development (IRD).
Teams on the ground, working with lab-based researchers, comb rural areas to uncover possible causes of the disease and beef up control of the tsetse fly, which favours a hot, humid habitat.
They log symptoms that point to possible infection and then carry out a quick diagnostic blood test, obtaining results confirmed in a lab.
Patients identified in this way can be cured through hospitalisation of seven to 10 days, which the WHO provides free of charge across Africa. A revolutionary treatment, which involves taking a one-off pill, is being tested.
Ironically, as the disease is rolled back, it becomes more and more difficult to encourage villagers to come forward and get tested, said Jammoneau.
“People no longer feel that the disease is a threat,” he said.
The researchers also test cattle, another tsetse target who suffer a different strain of the virus — animal trypanosomiasis. They lose weight, their milk production slumps, then they die.
IPR teams set tsetse traps in villages where they operate. The traps comprise blue screens impregnated with insecticide — the flies find the colour attractive.
Another trap variant permits capture to assess their number and then dissection to determine if they are infected.
The IPR hosts research at its lab as the scientific community hones its battle to eradicate sleeping sickness.
The lab can draw on some state-of-the-art equipment as well as some 100 employees, including 16 researchers, but needs renovating, said Kaba.
For Jamonneau, “the means to eradicate trypanosomiasis are there.
“But this disease raises scant interest among fundraisers. So we still need their support as the challenge is to track down and treat the last cases in order to finish off the illness.”
Struggling Moroccan fishermen turn to aquaculture for revenue
With fish stocks declining in the Mediterranean, struggling Moroccan fishermen are hoping to turn to aquaculture as a way to secure their future.
“We don’t get anything from the sea anymore, we’re paying for the mistakes of our fathers,” said Mohamed Bouajra, a fisherman in Ras Kebdana, a port town near Morocco’s eastern border with Algeria.
But aquaculture offers a “glimmer of hope for escaping poverty”, he said.
In Ras Kebdana, the Al Amal cooperative for independent fishermen is banking on the development of an offshore mussel farm to maintain future livelihoods.
Another cooperative at Mar Chica lagoon, some 40 kilometres (24 miles) west, runs a red algae farm to supply pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
Aimed at preserving fish stocks and supplementing falling revenues for small-scale fishermen, these two pilot projects are part of an ambitious national plan launched in 2009 called Blue Morocco.
While the number of fishing boats in Ras Kebdana has tripled since the 1990s, “there are no more fish”, said Bouajra.
Now in his 60s, Bouajra recalls the good days when fishing from his wooden boat would bring in 400 dirhams a day.
Today, he said he is lucky to make 40 dirhams: “You can’t live on that.”
Figures from Morocco’s department of maritime fishing confirm the decline. Catches in the eastern Oriental region dropped from 14.7 tonnes to 7.4 between 2013 and 2017.
Along the rest of Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, catches declined 30 per cent, alarming authorities.
Depleted fisheries are a financial concern, as exported seafood brought 22 billion dirhams in 2017, about half of food exports and 10 per cent of total exports.
Seaweed, algae –
“With climate change, the environment is deteriorating and fish are becoming scarce — not only in Morocco but across the world. We need to find alternatives to survive,” said Mimoune Bouasu.
The 47-year-old fisherman heads the independent fishermen’s cooperative in Mar Chicha, which manages 11 hectares (27 acres) of red algae aquafarms.
The cooperative sells the seaweed for six dirhams a kilo to a Moroccan company that invested in the venture.
“What we lack from fishing, we get from the algae,” said Bouasu, adding that he hopes the project will increase in size.
The cooperative currently employs eight people and recruits seasonal labour during planting and harvesting.
Further west along the Mediterranean near the Strait of Gibraltar, Abdelaziz Benhamou is in charge of production at an aquafarm in M’diq.
The Aqua M’diq company employs 24 staff and raises sea bass in offshore cages.
It is considered a model fish farm by the National Aquaculture Development Agency (ANDA), which hopes to replicate the project elsewhere on the Mediterranean or Atlantic coasts.
“Resources diminished because fishermen didn’t respect closed seasons for most species. Today, that’s starting to change, but everyone agrees that nothing is like before,” the 50-year-old former fisherman said.
In a recent report, Morocco’s financial oversight body, the court of auditors, warned of “over-exploited stocks”, blaming non-compliance with regulations governing quotas, restrictions on fishing gear and closed seasons.
Changing mindsets –
The court also highlighted delays in developing the aquaculture sector, noting that “certain strategic objectives have not been met”.
The 2009 Blue Morocco plan envisaged producing 200,000 tonnes of seafood from aquaculture by 2020. But in 2018, production was only 700 tonnes, according to ANDA.
After several years of technical studies, some 150 projects are now “in the process of launching” with private investment, according to Mustafa Amzough.
A manager at ANDA, Amzough says these projects — including 15 in the Mediterranean — have a total objective of 150,000 tonnes.
In Ras Kebdana, undersea nets for growing mussels have only been installed across five of the site’s 15 hectares. And the shellfish are still not ready for harvest, five years after the project was launched.
The 35 members of the cooperative maintain the mussels, hoping to begin sales next year.
In the meantime, boats continue going out for octopus, the main seafood available in the area.
But despite this, fisherman Bouajra says the mussel farm has already changed people’s mindset. “Before, there was no respect for the environment.”
Now there is weekly water sampling and analysis to monitor the health of the water.
“Today, the water is clean,” he said.
Divers in South Africa are risking their lives to provide marine delicacies to China
One Saturday night in August, Deurick van Blerk, 26, climbed into his small boat off the coast of Cape Town on another of his illegal fishing expeditions. He never returned.
Investigators are looking into allegations by fellow divers and his family that he was murdered, shot by a special task force during an anti-poaching operation in an increasingly violent battle between South African authorities and illegal hunters of abalone shellfish and rock lobster.
Abalone is a delicacy prized in Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere in east Asia, where dishes featuring the marine molluscs are coveted at wedding banquets and can cost thousands of dollars.
Illegal divers also search for rock lobster which is sold on the local market.
“Deurick and I started poaching when we were 15 years old,” his cousin Bruce van Reenen, 23, told AFP, struggling to control his emotions.
“Often we were fishing together, but that night we weren’t. We went on separate boats, I went diving around the corner in Camps Bay and Deurick went to Cape Point for lobster that night.”
Divers like Van Blerk and Van Reenen can earn hundreds of dollars for a successful night’s fishing.
But it is a fraction of what the dried abalone is worth on the markets of Hong Kong, with prices reaching thousands of dollars per kilogramme.
Overfishing started affecting abalone stocks as early as the 1950s, but it was not until the mid-1990s that rampant poaching began to take a grave toll.
George Branch, a marine biologist at the University of Cape Town, told AFP that since commercial harvesting began, abalone stocks have been reduced to a quarter of what they once were.
And West Coast rock lobster has dwindled dramatically to just 2.5 percent of its original population.
“Abalone is going almost entirely to East Asia, predominantly Hong Kong,” said Markus Burgener of TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors wildlife trade.
Retail prices in Hong Kong for dried South African abalone vary from $300 per kilogramme to over $10,000, he said.
“It is ultimately being consumed in China because that is where the greatest demand lies,” he explained, saying there were huge numbers of people involved in the commodity chain.
“The real issue is that there are thousands of people involved. It just can’t be sustainable.”
Rare source of work
Van Blerk’s family live in Hangberg, a poor coastal community on the edge of Hout Bay some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Cape Town, where abalone and lobster poaching is a rare source of work.
“It’s a threat for me also because they are shooting at us now,” his cousin said. “But what can I do? I must go on, it’s my life.
“I lost a cousin, unfortunately, but my life must go on because otherwise, my child will go hungry.”
Van Blerk’s girlfriend was pregnant when he disappeared, and she has since given birth to a baby girl.
She had waited for him to return at dawn, ready with his regular morning coffee.
But she has heard nothing, and there has been no sign of a body found.
Van Blerk’s two fellow crew members who went out with him that night say he was shot during an anti-poaching enforcement operation which left bullet holes in the boat.
They have since filed a criminal case against the authorities for attempted murder.
Khaye Nkwanyana, spokesman for the fisheries department, told AFP investigations were ongoing. He said the task force “should only fire in self-defence”.
Community activist Roscoe Jacobs, 32, said local people see poaching as one of the few ways out of poverty.
“It’s not something that people want to do, but because of our socio-economic conditions, it’s something that we are forced into,” he said.
“You really do it because it’s either that, or do I go and rob somebody? It’s something that you do at your own risk.”
Jacobs defended poaching, saying that “conservation needs to be considerate of people”.
“We’ve been living off these resources for more than 300 years and we will live off these resources for 300 years to come.”
The illicit quarry draws divers into a deadly world of gangland violence and international crime syndicates.
In September, South African police seized a truck heading to Botswana carrying 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds) of abalone with an estimated street value of $400,000.
And last year, Chinese authorities broke up a smuggling ring in the southern city of Guangzhou, which was attempting to shift $115 million in seafood, including abalone.
China’s growing middle class has a near insatiable appetite for abalone.
In Shanghai, one infamous restaurant bill recently charged $14,700 for a dish for eight people called “half-headed abalones with frozen sake”.
“Middlemen sell it to a syndicate of Chinese buyers,” one source with knowledge of the trade told AFP.
“The middlemen make the real money, not the poachers.”
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