What Is Leishmaniasis?
Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease caused by the Leishmania parasite. This parasite typically lives in infected sand flies. You can contract leishmaniasis from a bite from an infected sand fly.
There are three forms of the disease. Different species of the parasite cause each form. Cutaneous leishmaniasis affects your skin and is usually not serious. Visceral leishmaniasis damages your internal organs and can be life-threatening. Visceral leishmaniasis is also known as kala azar. Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis can lead to partial or complete destruction of the mucous membranes found in your nose, throat, and mouth.
The sand flies that carry the parasite typically reside in tropical and subtropical environments. Fatal epidemics have occurred in areas of Africa, such as Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
Unfortunately, affected regions are often remote and unstable, with limited resources for treating this disease. Doctors Without Borders calls leishmaniasis one of the most dangerous neglected tropical diseases.
What Are the Types of Leishmaniasis?
Three forms of leishmaniasis are cutaneous, visceral, and mucocutaneous, which is rare. Different species of the Leishmania parasite are associated with each form. Experts believe that there are about 20 Leishmania species that can transmit the disease to humans.
Visceral leishmaniasis is sometimes known as systemic leishmaniasis. It usually occurs two to eight months after being bitten by a sand fly. It damages internal organs, such as your spleen and liver. It also affects your immune system through damage to those organs. The condition is almost always fatal if it’s not treated.
Cutaneous leishmaniasis only causes ulcers on your skin. It’s the most common form of leishmaniasis. Treatment may not always be necessary, but it can speed healing and prevent complications.
A rare form of the disease is called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. It can occur several months after skin ulcers heal. This type of leishmaniasis affects the mucous membranes of the nose and palate. It’s usually considered a subset of cutaneous leishmaniasis. However, it’s more serious. It doesn’t heal on its own and always requires treatment.
How Can I Prevent Leishmaniasis?
There’s no vaccine or prophylactic medication available. The only way to prevent leishmaniasis is to avoid getting bitten by a sand fly.
Follow these steps to help prevent being bitten by a sand fly:
Wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible. Long pants, long-sleeved shirts tucked into pants, and high socks are recommended.
Use insect repellent on any exposed skin and on the ends of your pants and sleeves. The most effective insect repellants contain DEET.
Spray indoor sleeping areas with insecticide.
Sleep on the higher floors of a building. The insects are poor fliers.
Avoid the outdoors between dusk and dawn. This is when sand flies are most active.
When indoors, use screens and air conditioning.
Use a bed net tucked into your mattress. Sand flies are much smaller than mosquitos. Spray the net with insecticide containing pyrethroid if possible.
Buy bed nets, insecticides, and repellents before traveling to high-risk areas