Understanding Leishmaniasis: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Understanding Leishmaniasis Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Leishmaniasis is a disease transmitted by sandflies or butterfly flies. These mosquitoes bite both animals, such as dogs and humans. The causative agent of the tropical infectious disease – Leishmania – is unicellular parasites. Symptoms can vary depending on the form of the disease, and the disease can even be fatal. Find out more about leishmaniasis here.

Spread of leishmaniasis

Leishmania infection can cause leishmaniasis. The name of the disease and the group of pathogens goes back to the Scottish tropical doctor and pathologist William Leishman, who discovered and described the disease, later named after him at the beginning of the last century. Another name is Orient bump.

The disease is prevalent in tropical countries and southern Europe. According to estimates, around twelve million people are infected with the leishmaniasis pathogen, with two million new infections being assumed each year. About 60,000 people die from the rarer form, visceral leishmaniasis (visceral: affecting the internal organs). The much more common form is skin leishmaniasis (cutaneous leishmaniasis).

 

Dry cutaneous leishmaniasis

In dry cutaneous leishmaniasis, a slight reddening develops at the injection site, developing into a swelling that grows over several weeks. This dry “bump”  is painless and usually heals after several months but leaves a scar.

Since the infection lasts for an extended period, the body’s immune response also increases during the duration of the infection, so that an infection passed through leaves behind a lifelong immunity.

Wet skin leishmaniasis – weeping ulcer

In addition to the dry cutaneous form, there is also a wet skin leishmaniasis, in which a weeping ulcer is the main feature. The course of the disease and healing is similar to that of dry leishmaniasis.

 

Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis: Symptoms later

Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis is more complicated. In this clinical picture, there is also a puncture in the skin with the development of the typical bump. Still, after the initial infection – and sometimes up to 30 years later – the parasites attack the nose, throat, and lips’ mucous membranes via the lymph, blood vessels, and larynx.

The first signs are nosebleeds or obstructed nasal breathing after the initial infection. The pathogens can also attack and destroy the nasal septum: the affected patient then develops a so-called “tapir nose”, in which the nose has collapsed. Tissue breakdown often leads to further infection and mutilation. This form of leishmaniasis must be treated with medication in any case.

Kala-azar – the black disease

The most severe form of the disease is visceral leishmaniasis, which affects the internal organs. It is also known as Kala Azar. She performs in more than 88 countries – mainly in Brazil, on the Indian subcontinent and in Sudan. According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), around 500,000 people contract kala azar annually.

Symptoms of kala azar

The disease, which can now be treated with antibiotics, is always fatal if left untreated. The term Kala-Azar comes from the Persian and means something like “black disease” In this form of leishmaniasis, the skin turns blackish.

After an incubation period of three to six months – but sometimes years later – the affected person develops flu-like symptoms:

Hair loss, skin and mucous membrane bleeding and anaemia can also occur. The sick lose a lot of weight, and the organ infestation by the parasites causes the stomach to bloat.

 

How is the disease transmitted?

All forms of leishmaniasis are caused by unicellular parasites that sand flies or butterfly flies transmit. The parasites commonly live in rodents, dogs and foxes. From there, they get through a first mosquito bite into the insect’s intestine, where they multiply and develop further. A second mosquito bite then transmits the parasites to humans.

There is no vaccination against leishmaniasis. The only protection is clothing with long arms and legs and a continuous, consistent mosquito repellent.

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