Causes, prevention and treatment of leishmaniasis

Leishmaniasis is an infection. It is caused by a protozoa. Protozoa are single cell organisms that can only grow inside another living organism. The protozoa is called Leishmania. There are many types of Leishmania species that infect humans. It is spread to humans by the bite of phlebotomine sandflies. The sandflies are infected with leishmania. There are three forms of the disease:

1. Visceral leishmaniasis: this is also called kala-azar. It is the most dangerous. Infected people get fevers, weight loss and low blood pressure. The spleen and liver can get very big. In Africa, it is seen in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan.

2. Cutaneous leishmaniasis: this is the commonest type. Usually there is a lesion (mark on the skin) that goes away within a year. There will be a scar remaining. There is no pain unless there is an infection from bacteria. In Africa it is seen in Algeria.

3. Mucocutaneous leishmaniasis: this causes a skin lesion which will heal. Many years later the mucous membranes (mouth, nose, breathing passages) can be affected. The mucous membranes can become damaged very badly. It may be hard to breathe and digest food. Most cases are outside of Africa.


Those who are poor especially in poor housing – sleeping outside on the ground increases risk. People who are malnourished, who do not have enough vitamins and protein. HIV infection also increases risk.


To avoid getting leishmaniasis, you must avoid sandflies. This can be done by not going out after dusk (just before sunset) and dawn (just before sunrise). If you do go outside, make sure to spray insect repellents on your clothes. Also wear long sleeve shirts and trousers. At night time, sleep with an insect net that is sprayed with insecticide. Sandflies cannot fly very high. So, when you sleep make sure it is not on the floor. Leishmaniasis is a treatable disease. It is good to know signs of the disease and start treatment early. This will also stop other people from getting the disease.


Usually this is done by looking for signs and symptoms of the disease. Sometimes doctors can look for parasites in the body. This can be done by taking a small cut from the skin or bone marrow. Also checking for our body’s response to leishmaniasis (serology) can be used.


Leishmaniasis is treatable. Medication used depends on the type of leishmaniasis and where in the world it was caught. In visceral leishmaniasis, treatment is necessary. However, in cutaneous leishmaniasis, the body can heal by itself. So there has to be a decision made if treatment is needed. This is because the medications have bad side effects.


This article is part of Right for Education’s Eye Health Week.



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