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Explainer: what is the ‘flesh-eating’ disease that’s spreading across Syria?

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As if years of war, terrorism and oppression weren’t harrowing enough for the people of Syria, the country is experiencing an epidemic of a so-called flesh-eating disease. Outbreaks of the disease, known as leishmaniasis, have been reported repeatedly over the past year.

More recently, the head of the Kurdish Red Crescent was reported to have said the problem was made worse by the actions of Islamic State leaving bodies to rot in the streets. But while leishmaniasis is a serious problem in Syria, this picture of a flesh-eating disease spread by terrorists isn’t entirely accurate.

What is leishmaniasis?

Leishmaniasis has actually been endemic to Syria for centuries and was once commonly known as “Aleppo evil”. This cutaneous (skin-affecting) form of the disease isn’t strictly “flesh eating”, although another form found in Brazil and some other parts of South America can be. It is caused by the Leishmania parasite, which is carried by sandflies. If you’re bitten by a fly, the parasites can enter your blood and invade the macrophage immune cells that normally kill bugs, causing causing horrible open sores close to the bite.

In other places, in particular India, a different form of the parasite spreads to the liver and spleen and causes death as those vital visceral organs break down. In the Brazilian form, the parasites cause macrophages to migrate to the mucosal surfaces around the mouth and nose. Here the immune system attacks the parasites but ends up causing substantial damage to surrounding tissue, eating away the flesh in these areas, leading to gross disfigurements.

Sandflies actually don’t eat rotting bodies on the street, they suck blood from living people, so the reports about Islamic State spreading the disease aren’t strictly true. However, the political events in Syria – including the rise of Islamic State – have caused the collapse of the country’s health systems, along with every other part of the social structure there. So inevitably, the disease has been spreading more widely.



This article goes out of it's way to address the issue of Syrians bringing the parasites into other countries with basically nothing to see here, move along. I was searching to see if there were any epidemics about and when I clicked on this article, it just happened to be Syria. I'm not hearing anything about this issue in msm either. 

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