A disfiguring, flesh-eating disease is sweeping across Syria, and the US State Department says ISIS is to blame.
The disease is Leishmaniasis, and it’s spread by a parasite that’s transmitted through the bite of an infected sandfly.
It can cause painful open sores that sometimes take months or even years to heal, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Syria has always been a hotspot for Leishmaniasis, but the civil war is likely accelerating the spread.
A US State Department Twitter account that was created to combat ISIS propaganda tweeted about the connection.
Poor sanitary conditions can increase the number of places for sandflies to breed, according to the World Health Organization. So ISIS’ practice of dumping bodies in the streets could directly increase the risk for Leishmaniasis infection.
But the disease was already spreading through Syria as the health system collapsed after civil war broke out in 2011. Tens of thousands of doctors have since left the country, and by 2013, two out of five hospitals were not in service, according to an article in the BMJ.
By 2012, nearly 53,000 cases of cutaneous Leishmaniasis (the most common type) were reported in Syria, and that’s the last official number available. The situation may be even worse now.
The local news story that the State Department tweeted out says the first case was reported in 2013, which is inaccurate, and that by mid-2014, 500 people were infected, which is likely an underestimate. (The story cites activists and the Kurdish Red Crescent; the 53,000 number comes from the Syrian Ministry of Health.)
Leishmaniasis has been a terrible disease native to Syria since at least 900 BC. Worldwide, the WHO estimates that 1.3 million new cases are reported every year; between 20,000 and 30,000 of them are fatal.
As Syrian refugees have had to flee their country, Leishmaniasis has followed them. NeighboringLebanon had no reported casesof the disease before 2008, according to the WHO, but by 2013, the country reported just over 1,000 cases — 97% of which were among Syrian refugees.
“The Syrian conflict and vast population displacement has significantly increased the incidence of the vector-borne disease within Syria and spread this epidemic into neighboring countries,” a 2014 study in PLoS Pathogens concluded.
Since the infection can also be spread via contaminated needles, it’s imperative to have proper health systems in place to control the disease, according to a 2015 study that examined how the Syrian civil war has accelerated the spread of Leishmaniasis.
“In order to decrease the risk of exposure,” the authors concluded, “housing conditions of the refugees must be improved, routine health controls must be performed, effective measures must be set in place for vector control, and infected individuals must be diagnosed and treated to prevent spread of the infection.”