The Deadly Bite of the Sand Fly

The tiny sand fly (subfamily Phlebotominae) commonly found in the Middle East, Asia, Central America and parts of Africa is an insect known for sucking its victim’s blood and transmitting some pretty nasty diseases, including Leishmaniasis and Chandipura virus. Chandipura virus is a cousin of rabies and is very deadly but it is Leishmaniasis that impacts the most people – and a disease most Americans have never heard of.

Leishmaniasis is caused by a parasitic protozoa that is carried from other animals to humans via the sand fly. About 12 million people are currently infected with Leishmaniasis in some 98 countries. There are about 2 million new cases diagnosed and between 20 and 50 thousand deaths each year. Although its bite is painless, these insects can be annoying and often dangerous. Only the female flies bite because she requires the protein in the blood to make her eggs. But the males are known for swarming around potential hosts, waiting for females to mate with.

sand fly biology

In the most dangerous form of the disease, visceral leishmaniasis, the parasites invade the internal organs, which can be fatal. The other types are cutaneous leishmaniasis, which causes sores that take months or even a year to heal, and mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, which causes ulcers and long-lasting damage around the nose and mouth of the victim. Cutaneous leishmaniasis is often found in troops who have been stationed in the Middle East. There it is so common it is known as “Baghdad boil.”

skin ulcer from sand fly
A British adventurer and television personality named Ben Fogle contracted the most dangerous form of the disease, visceral leishmaniasis, during a trip to the Peruvian jungle. He began to develop some symptoms consistent with malaria – dizziness, headache, lack of appetite – but then went back to London to prepare for an expedition to the South Pole. He collapsed during training and was in a hospital for weeks while doctors searched for answers on his condition. Weeks later, a sore erupted on his arm. Although this form of the disease can be deadly, he got lucky and recovered after receiving intravenous treatment.

Bottom line: Don’t mess with a sand fly.

photo credits: main image