Leishmaniasis is a disease spread by the bite of the female sandfly.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
There are different forms of leishmaniasis.
- Cutaneous leishmaniasis affects the skin and mucous membranes. Skin sores usually start at the site of the sandfly bite. In a few people, sores may develop on mucous membranes.
- Systemic, or visceral, leishmaniasis affects the entire body. This form occurs 2 – 8 months after a person is bitten by the sandfly. Most people do not remember having a skin sore. This form can lead to deadly complications. The parasites damage the immune system by decreasing the numbers of disease-fighting cells.
Cases of leishmaniasis have been reported on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. In the Americas, leishmaniasis can be found in Mexico and South America. Leishmaniasis has been reported in military personnel returning from the Persian Gulf.
Symptoms of cutaneous leishmaniasis may include:
- Breathing difficulty
- Skin sores, which may become a skin ulcer that heals very slowly
- Stuffy nose, runny nose, and nosebleeds
- Swallowing difficulty
- Ulcers and wearing away (erosion) in the mouth, tongue, gums, lips, nose, and inner nose
Systemic visceral infection in children usually begins suddenly with:
Adults usually have a fever for 2 weeks to 2 months, along with symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, and appetite loss. Weakness increases as the disease gets worse.
Other symptoms of systemic visceral leishmaniasis may include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Fever that lasts for weeks; may come and go in cycles
- Night sweats
- Scaly, gray, dark, ashen skin
- Thinning hair
- Weight loss
Signs and tests
A physical exam may show signs of an enlarged spleen, liver, and lymph nodes. The patient may have been bitten by sandflies, or was in an area known for leishmaniasis.
Tests that may be done to diagnose the condition include:
- Biopsy of the spleen and culture
- Bone marrow biopsy and culture
- Direct agglutination assay
- Indirect immunofluorescent antibody test
- Leishmania-specific PCR test
- Liver biopsy and culture
- Lymph node biopsy and culture
- Montenegro skin test
- Skin biopsy and culture
Other tests that may be done include:
- Complete blood count
- Serologic testing
- Serum albumin
- Serum immunoglobulin levels
- Serum protein
Medicines called antimony-containing compounds are the main drugs used to treat leishmaniasis. These include:
- Meglumine antimoniate
- Sodium stibogluconate
Other drugs that may be used include:
- Amphotericin B
Plastic surgery may be needed to correct the disfigurement caused by sores on the face (cutaneous leishmaniasis). Patients with drug-resistant viral leishmaniasis may need to have their spleen removed (splenectomy).
Cure rates are high with the proper medicine. Patients should get treated before damage to the immune system occurs. Cutaneous leishmaniasis may lead to disfigurement.
Death is usually caused by complications (such as other infections), rather than from the disease itself. Death often occurs within 2 years.
- Bleeding (hemorrhage)
- Deadly infections due to immune system damage
- Disfigurement of the face
Calling your health care provider
Contact your health care provider if you have symptoms of leishmaniasis after visiting an area where the disease is known to occur.
Preventing sandfly bites is the most immediate form of protection. You can prevent a bite by:
- Putting fine mesh netting around the bed (in areas where the disease occurs)
- Screening windows
- Wearing insect repellent
- Wearing protective clothing
Public health measures to reduce the sandfly population and animal reservoirs are important. There are no vaccines or drugs that prevent leishmaniasis.
Croft SL, Buffet PA. Leishmaniasis. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 356.
Magill AJ. Leishmania species. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 256.