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Africa - Disease

The West African disease environment was nearly as dangerous for Europeans as their European diseases were for the American Indians. From any point of view, tropical West Africa had a terrible disease environment for human beings of any origin. Infection rates with yaws, Guinea worm, trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), onchocerciasis (river blindness), and schistosomiasis (liver flukes) were extremely high.

What made the environment so dangerous was a combination of yellow fever and Plasmodium falciparum, the most fatal form of malaria. Africa also had the two most effective insect vectors for malaria found anywhere in the world — Anopheles gambiae and Anopheles funestus. As a result of these insects, almost the whole of tropical Africa is still considered to be hyperendemic with falciparum malaria, which means, in effect, that the chance of an alien visitor’s escaping an infective bite for as long as a year is negligible. Nor was this merely a matter of high humidity in the tropical rain forest. These particular vectors are just as effective in the open savanna country, and they provide some infective bites even during the long dry season.

African children fought a life-and-death battle with the disease. If they survived to the age of five or so, they acquired an apparent immunity — paid for with an infant mortality from malaria alone that would kill half or more of all children before they reached the age of five. With yellow fever it is possible to acquire lifelong immunity after an infection, with no clinical symptoms at all. This kind of immunity is common among children who grow up in regions where yellow fever is found. Non-immune adults who encounter the disease for the first time, however, have a case fatality rate of 75 percent or more, but the survivors acquire lifelong immunity.

African trypanosomiasis - sleeping sickness - is an infectious disease of humans and animals of similar aetiology and epidemiology. The causative agents of the disease are protozoan parasites of the genus Trypanosoma that live and multiply extracellularly in blood and tissue fluids of their mammalian hosts and are transmitted by the bite of infected tsetse flies. The Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingston (1813–1875) first suggested that sleeping sickness is caused by the bite of tsetse flies. All domestic animals can be affected by nagana and the symptoms are fever, listlessness, emaciation, hair loss, discharge from the eyes, oedema, anaemia, and paralysis. As the illness progresses the animals weaken more and more and eventually become unfit for work, so stock farming is very difficult within the tsetse belt.

There are only a few written reports giving evidence for the occurrence of trypanosomiasis in Africa during the Middle Ages. Most of these reports are from the Arabs who kept close trade relations with the West African kingdoms such as Benin, Ghana, Mali and Songhai. The cattle-breeding Fulani settled south of the Sahara but north of the tsetse belt in regions with sufficient grazing land.

The discovery of Africa by Europe was a discovery for Europeans - not for Africans. Europeans came first to Africa as friends to trade goods such as hardwoods, diamonds, gold and copper. After many wars among the African kingdoms and empires, Africans became easy targets for invasion and rule by armies from other continents.

Africans had dealt with non-Africans in many parts of the world for years preceding this event. Nonetheless, this "discovery" had far-reaching results in Africa and, indeed, in the entire western world. It brought to Africa a new people aggressive, essentially materialistic, technologically advanced, convinced that their way of life was superior. It stimulated a trade that greatly affected Africa south of the Sahara and the western world - a trade in human beings.

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Page last modified: 22-02-2017 16:29:05 ZULU