Tropical skin disease carried by sand flies now in US

FILE-A researcher analyzes insects in a lab. (Photo credit: CRISTINA ALDEHUELA/AFP via Getty Images)

A unique skin disease carried by sand flies is now in the United States. 

Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease native to tropical areas, can spread with the bite of infected sand flies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common forms of leishmaniasis are cutaneous leishmaniasis, which causes skin sores, and visceral leishmaniasis, which affects several internal organs, usually the spleen, liver, and bone marrow.

Leishmaniasis cases in the U.S. were detected in people who became infected while traveling or living in other countries. The CDC explains on its website that some cases of cutaneous leishmaniasis, were reported in Texas and Oklahoma. 

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Researchers shared their findings on the infectious disease on Oct. 19 at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conference. 

According to the study, which hasn’t been published, researchers discovered that most of the positive samples came from individuals who traveled to countries, where leishmaniasis was native, and 86 people infected with the disease didn’t travel out of the U.S. 

Vitaliano Cama, a microbiologist with the CDC who worked on the study, told the science and tech magazine Scientific American that their team wants to create awareness among doctors that leishmaniasis cases could occur without international travel in Texas and possibly other states. 

He added that most of the samples researchers analyzed with a local strain of leishmaniasis were from Texas, explaining that it could be related to more awareness of the disease in the state, but concluded a lack of attention in other states creates challenges when determining if the disease is present in other areas. 

Moreover, the CDC has several tips for people to protect themselves from sand fly bites. 

Specifically, people in areas with sand flies should avoid outdoor activities, especially from dusk to dawn, when the insects are the most active.

It’s also important to minimize the amount of exposed (uncovered) skin and apply insect repellent that contains the chemical DEET to exposed skin and under the ends of sleeves and pant legs.

The CDC also advises people to stay in well-screened or air-conditioned areas because sand flies are smaller than mosquitoes and can get through small holes and to spray living and sleeping areas with insecticide to kill insects. 

This story was reported from Washington, D.C.