The diagnosis of African Trypanosomiasis is made through laboratory methods, because the clinical features of infection are not sufficiently specific. The diagnosis rests on finding the parasite in body fluid or tissue by microscopy. The parasite load in T. b. rhodesiense infection is substantially higher than the level in T. b. gambiense infection.
T. b. rhodesiense parasites can easily be found in blood. They can also be found in lymph node fluid or in fluid or biopsy of a chancre. Serologic testing is not widely available and is not used in the diagnosis, since microscopic detection of the parasite is straightforward.
The classic method for diagnosing T. b. gambiense infection is by microscopic examination of lymph node aspirate, usually from a posterior cervical node. It is often difficult to detect T. b. gambiense in blood. Concentration techniques and serial examinations are frequently needed. Serologic testing is available outside the U.S. for T. b. gambiense; however, it normally is used for screening purposes only and the definitive diagnosis rests on microscopic observation of the parasite.
All patients diagnosed with African trypanosomiasis must have their cerebrospinal fluid examined to determine whether there is involvement of the central nervous system, since the choice of treatment drug(s) will depend on the disease stage. The World Health Organization criteria for central nervous system involvement include increased protein in cerebrospinal fluid and a white cell count of more than 5. Trypanosomes can often be observed in cerebrospinal fluid in persons with second stage infection.