Human African trypanosomiasis, also known as African sleeping sickness, is a parasitic disease that causes fever, headaches, joint pains and itching. If left untreated, the disease can also cause behavior changes, confusion and poor coordination. About 61 million people in 36 countries are at risk for contracting this disease, which is transmitted by the bite of a tsetse fly.
Julius Mulindwa began studying African trypanosomiasis as a microbiology graduate student at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. After earning a doctorate at Heidelberg University in Germany, he is now doing postdoctoral research at Makerere. Mulindwa traveled to Atlanta this fall as one of ASTMH’s 2016 Annual Meeting Travel Awardees, an honor that provides full funding for new researchers to participate in the event.
We asked Mulindwa about his research and the fight against African sleeping sickness.
What drew you to human African trypanosomiasis as your disease of study?
During my graduate studies, my master’s thesis focused on identifying potential diagnostic targets for human African trypanosomiasis. It happens to be a low-prevalence, neglected disease but with interesting aspects with respect to the trypanosome biology and host-parasite interactions, which I have been studying.
How would you explain your research to a regular person on the street?
We often conduct rural community outreach to sensitize people about our research, which is certainly not an easy task considering the fact that the people we talk to are unfamiliar with DNA, even. So, I would simply mention that I am studying disease-causing agents in order to identify particles or elements that could be used in making drugs and improving the diagnosis of sleeping sickness cases.
What are the future implications of your research for prevention or control of this disease?
I am currently involved in projects studying trypanosome-human transcriptome during active infection and identifying host genetic susceptibility markers by genome-wide association study. The ultimate goal of these studies is improving human health, especially for the rural people most burdened by this disease. My research will provide knowledge about new potential drug targets and also markers for improved diagnosis.
The WHO has been working toward eliminating human African trypanosomiasis since 2012 and plans to have it completely eliminated by 2020. What are your thoughts on progress so far?
WHO has done a remarkable job through the national control programs, and an impressive reduction in prevalence has been observed in the sub-Saharan endemic areas. However, some isolated disease hubs like northwestern Uganda are volatile areas marked by conflict escalating from Southern Sudan, and these could greatly hinder disease surveillance and progress towards complete elimination.
What was the greatest benefit of attending the ASTMH conference?
Meeting and interacting with renowned scientists was a tremendous achievement for my research career. The networks created will foster collaborations, which I am optimistic will result in multi-disciplinary research grants.
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