When it Comes to Medical Ethics, Different Rules Apply to Africa and Europe

At the turn of the 20th century, epidemics of trypanosomiasis, or “sleeping sickness” as it is more commonly known, started to appear across Africa. A vector-borne parasitic disease causing apathy, slow movement, speech disorders, physical weakness and death, sleeping sickness raised alarm among European colonisers on the continent who feared that its spread could slow down the African workforce, and subsequently their colonial projects. In 1906, a renowned German scientist travelled to East Africa with his wife and assistants to try and find a “cure” for the disease. He set up a sleeping sick “concentration camp” for East Africans, and started to “treat” them with Atoxyl – a reagent containing arsenic – even though it was known to cause pain, blindness and even death. Best known for his research on cholera and tuberculosis, Koch is considered to be the founder of modern microbiology and one of the finest scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1905 for his research on tuberculosis and gained international acclaim for his discoveries. By the time Koch left the continent in October 1907, three sleeping sick “concentration camps” had been established in German East Africa, and five such institutions were found in the German West African colonies, that is, present-day Togo and Cameroon.

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