Brain and Body

There’s a “Flesh-Eating” Disease Spreading Across Syria

December 22, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Photo of a large, open ulcer on the back of a patient's hand
Photo credit: Dr. DS Martin/CDC


Our hearts go out to the citizens of Syria — not only is the country suffering through a time of terrorism and oppression, but now they have to add a “flesh-eating” disease to their list of problems.

The disease, known as leishmaniasis, is caused by the Leishmania parasite carried by sandflies. If a fly bites you, the parasite enters the blood and invades the macrophage immune cells which normally kill invaders. The infection eventually causes horrible open sores to form on the skin near the bite. Some media reports have blamed the flesh-eating disease on ISIS, claiming that the terrorist group made the problem worse by leaving bodies to rot in the streets. However, the cutaneous (skin-affecting) disease has been present in Syria for centuries and is also known as the “Aleppo evil.” Plus, sandflies don’t eat rotting bodies — they suck blood from the living.

While the “flesh-eating” form of the disease exists in Syria, there are other forms of leishmaniasis found other parts of the world.  In Brazil, the parasites can lead to gross disfigurements, and in India, a different form of the Leishmania parasite can spread to the liver and spleen and cause death as the vital organs break down.

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While blaming the spread of the disease on ISIS and rotting bodies isn’t exactly accurate, the actions of the terrorist group have contributed to the epidemic. With the rise of Islamic State, the country’s health systems have collapsed. Since Syria isn’t currently well-equipped to treat and prevent the disease, leishmaniasis has been spreading more freely.

In the midst of the Syrian migrant crisis, many places around the world will likely be hesitant to welcome migrants with open arms knowing that a flesh-eating disease is spreading around the country. Fortunately, the disease is mainly spread from the sandflies, although there have been a few reports of the parasites spreading via contaminated needles or blood transfusions. But basically, the disease isn’t something you can “catch” from someone else, so there’s no need for a global panic about migrants bringing leishmaniasis to other parts of the world.

What’s more, the sandflies can’t survive in colder climates, which is why the disease only exists throughout the tropics and subtropics. Plus, the disease tends to affect those with weaker immune systems, like people infected with HIV. People who live in regions with good access to general health care and nutritious foods are at a very limited risk for contracting the disease.

How is leishmaniasis treated? Unfortunately, since the disease is typically only found among the world’s poorest people, there hasn’t been an overwhelming effort put towards developing new drugs or vaccines to treat it. But there are four different drugs that can be used to cure the disease. Scientists haven’t yet agreed on which drug provides the best treatment, but the skin sores caused by the cutaneous form of the disease will usually heal up on their own, even without treatment. However, they can leave behind nasty scars.

While the term “flesh-eating disease” probably doesn’t sit well with most people, there’s no reason to panic about Syrian migrants. Remember that time the entire world freaked out about a hypothetical Ebola apocalypse? Let’s not have another repeat of that.

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