Although it is classified as an NTD, leishmaniasis is relatively widespread in tropical and subtropical regions, affecting people in more than 90 countries. It is caused by approximately 20 different species of Leishmania, protozoan parasites that are transmitted by sand fly vectors such as Phlebotomus spp. and Lutzomyia spp. Dogs, cats, sheep, horses, cattle rodents, and humans can all serve as reservoirs.
The Leishmania protozoan is phagocytosed by macrophages but uses virulence factors to avoid destruction within the phagolysosome. The virulence factors inhibit the phagolysosome enzymes that would otherwise destroy the parasite. The parasite reproduces within the macrophage, lyses it, and the progeny infect new macrophages.
The three major clinical forms of leishmaniasis are cutaneous (oriental sore, Delhi boil, Aleppo boil), visceral (kala-azar, Dumdum fever), and mucosal (espundia). The most common form of disease is cutaneous leishmaniasis, which is characterized by the formation of sores at the site of the insect bite that may start out as papules or nodules before becoming large ulcers.
It may take visceral leishmaniasis months and sometimes years to develop, leading to enlargement of the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, and bone marrow. The damage to these body sites triggers fever, weight loss, and swelling of the spleen and liver. It also causes a decrease in the number of red blood cells (anemia), white blood cells (leukopenia), and platelets (thrombocytopenia), causing the patient to become immunocompromised and more susceptible to fatal infections of the lungs and gastrointestinal tract.
The mucosal form of leishmaniasis is one of the less common forms of the disease. It causes a lesion similar to the cutaneous form but mucosal leishmaniasis is associated with mucous membranes of the mouth, nares, or pharynx, and can be destructive and disfiguring. Mucosal leishmaniasis occurs less frequently when the original cutaneous (skin) infection is promptly treated.
Definitive diagnosis of leishmaniasis is made by visualizing organisms in Giemsa-stained smears, by isolating Leishmania protozoans in cultures, or by PCR-based assays of aspirates from infected tissues. Specific DNA probes or analysis of cultured parasites can help to distinguish Leishmania species that are causing simple cutaneous leishmaniasis from those capable of causing mucosal leishmaniasis.
Cutaneous leishmaniasis is usually not treated. The lesions will resolve after weeks (or several months), but may result in scarring. Recurrence rates are low for this disease. More serious infections can be treated with stibogluconate (antimony gluconate), amphotericin B, and miltefosine.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology