Children with human African trypanosomiasis (HAT) present with a range of generally non-specific symptoms. Late diagnosis is frequent with often tragic outcomes. Trypanosomes can infect the foetus by crossing the placenta. Unequivocal cases of congenital infection that have been reported include newborn babies of infected mothers who were diagnosed with HAT in the first 5 days of life and children of infected mothers who had never entered an endemic country themselves.
This review systematically summarizes the literature on the vertical transmission of HAT, to our knowledge for the first time. To approach the broader aspects of the subject, articles considering the epidemiology of childhood HAT and HAT in pregnancy were also included. The HAT guidelines and technical reports of the World Health Organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, and of one endemic country were reviewed.
Publications describing congenital HAT are very limited and consist only of single case reports and small case series. Generally it is assumed to be a rare event, but it has never been systematically investigated. In two publications, it is hypothesized that congenital HAT occurs more often than suspected. Not all guidelines and not all HAT literature mention this transmission route.
The risk of vertical transmission is unknown. Awareness of congenital HAT is insufficient, and as a result opportunities for an early diagnosis in newborns may be missed. All HAT guidelines and local HAT protocols should stress that in endemic areas pregnant women should be systematically checked for HAT and that newborns of HAT infected mothers should be assessed for the disease as soon as possible. Studies on the impact of HAT on fertility and pregnancy and studies on congenital HAT are long overdue.