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The term leishmaniasis encompasses multiple clinical syndromes, several of which are described here—the cutaneous, mucosal, and visceral forms, which result from infection of macrophages in the dermis, in the naso-oropharyngeal mucosa, and throughout the reticuloendothelial system, respectively. For all three forms, the infection can range from asymptomatic to severe. Cutaneous and mucosal leishmaniasis can cause substantial morbidity, whereas visceral leishmaniasis can be life threatening.


Cutaneous Leishmaniasis

This is the most common form of leishmaniasis, both in general and in U.S. travelers. Unless otherwise specified, cutaneous leishmaniasis refers to localized cutaneous leishmaniasis, rather than to much less common forms, such as diffuse cutaneous leishmaniasis and disseminated cutaneous leishmaniasis. Different Leishmania species cause Old World versus New World (American) cutaneous leishmaniasis. In the Old World (the Eastern Hemisphere), the etiologic agents include Leishmania tropica, L. major, and L. aethiopica, as well as L. infantum and L. donovani. The main species in the New World (the Western Hemisphere) are either in the L. mexicana species complex (L. mexicana, L. amazonensis, and L. venezuelensis) or the subgenus Viannia (L. [V.] braziliensis, L. [V.] guyanensis, L. [V.] panamensis, and L. [V.] peruviana); L. infantum/L. chagasi also causes cutaneous leishmaniasis in the New World.

In general, cutaneous leishmaniasis causes skin lesions, which can persist for months, sometimes years. The skin lesions usually develop within several weeks or months after the exposure but occasionally first appear years later (for example, in the context of trauma or immunosuppression). The lesions typically evolve from papules to nodular plaques to ulcerative lesions, with a raised border and central depression, which can be covered by scab or crust; some lesions persist as nodules. The lesions usually are painless but can be painful, especially if ulcerative lesions become infected with bacteria or if the lesions are near a joint. The healing process typically results in atrophic scarring.

Even patients with localized cutaneous leishmaniasis quite commonly develop more than one primary lesion (on the same or different parts of the body), satellite lesions, regional lymphadenopathy (occasionally bubonic), and/or nodular lymphangitis (sporotrichoid-like subcutaneous nodules). Sometimes lymphadenopathy is noticed, before skin lesions develop.

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Ulcerative skin lesion, with a raised outer border, on a Guatemalan patient who has cutaneous leishmaniasis. (Credit: MERTU, Guatemala; courtesy of B. Arana)

Mucosal Leishmaniasis

Mucosal leishmaniasis (also called espundia) traditionally refers to a metastatic sequela of New World cutaneous infection, which results from dissemination of parasites from the skin to the naso-oropharyngeal mucosa. Mucosal leishmaniasis is caused by species in the Viannia subgenus (especially L. [V.] braziliensis but also L. [V.] panamensis and sometimes L. [V.] guyanensis); it also can be caused by L. (Leishmania) amazonensis. Adequate systemic treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis caused by these species may reduce the risk for mucosal disease, but some risk may remain. The magnitudes and determinants (parasite and host factors) of the risks for mucosal dissemination and for mucosal disease per se are poorly understood; even for the same species (for example, L. [V.] braziliensis), the risks appear to vary among geographic regions in the Americas.

Mucosal leishmaniasis usually becomes clinically evident within several years (sometimes as long as decades) of the original cutaneous lesions, which typically were not treated at all or were treated suboptimally. However, mucosal and skin lesions may be noted concomitantly (mucocutaneous leishmaniasis), and some patients had subclinical cutaneous infection.

The initial manifestations of mucosal leishmaniasis usually are persistent, unusual nasal symptoms (such as stuffiness or bleeding), although oral or pharyngeal symptoms sometimes are noticed first. If untreated, the disease can progress to ulcerative destruction of the naso-oropharyngeal mucosa (such as perforation of the nasal septum).

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Visceral Leishmaniasis

The general term visceral leishmaniasis encompasses a broad spectrum of severity and manifestations. Although the incubation period generally ranges from weeks to months, asymptomatic infection can become clinically manifest years to decades after the exposure in people who become immunocompromised for other medical reasons (such as HIV/AIDS). Visceral leishmaniasis usually is caused by the species L. donovani and L. infantum (L. chagasi generally is considered synonymous with L. infantum) and affects internal organs (particularly, spleen, liver, and bone marrow).

The stereotypical manifestations of clinically manifest visceral infection include:

  • Fever
  • Weight loss (cachexia; wasting)
  • Hepatosplenomegaly (usually, the spleen is more prominent than the liver)
  • Pancytopenia—i.e., anemia, leukopenia, and thrombocytopenia
  • A high total protein level and a low albumin level, with hypergammaglobulinemia

Lymphadenopathy may be noted, particularly in some geographic regions, such as Sudan and South Sudan.

HIV-coinfected patients may have atypical manifestations, such as involvement of the gastrointestinal tract and other organ systems.

The term kala-azar—which means black (kala) fever (azar) in Hindi—often is reserved for severe (advanced) cases of visceral leishmaniasis, although the terms kala-azar and visceral leishmaniasis sometimes are used interchangeably. If untreated, severe cases of visceral leishmaniasis typically are fatal, either directly from the disease or indirectly from complications, such as secondary (myco)bacterial infection or hemorrhage.

Some patients develop post kala-azar dermal leishmaniasis (PKDL), a syndrome characterized by skin lesions (such as erythematous or hypopigmented macules, papules, nodules, and patches), typically first noticed and most prominent on the face, that develop at variable intervals after (or during) therapy for visceral leishmaniasis. Persons with chronic PKDL can serve as important reservoir hosts of infection.

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Light-microscopic examination of a stained bone marrow specimen from a patient with visceral leishmaniasis—showing a macrophage (a special type of white blood cell) containing multiple Leishmania amastigotes (the tissue stage of the parasite). Note that each amastigote has a nucleus (red arrow) and a rod-shaped kinetoplast (black arrow). Visualization of the kinetoplast is important for diagnostic purposes, to be confident the patient has leishmaniasis. (Credit: CDC/DPDx)

Various laboratory methods can be used to diagnose leishmaniasis—to detect the parasite and to identify the Leishmania species. Some of the methods are available only in reference laboratories.

In the United States, CDC provides reference diagnostic services for leishmaniasis. For more details and instructions in this regard, see:

Leishmaniasis is diagnosed by detecting Leishmania parasites (or DNA) in tissue specimens—such as from skin lesions, for cutaneous leishmaniasis (see instructions), or from bone marrow, for visceral leishmaniasis (see note below)—via light-microscopic examination of stained slides, molecular methods, and specialized culture techniques.

Identification of the Leishmania species also can be important, particularly if more than one species is found where the patient lived or traveled and if they can have different clinical and prognostic implications. The species can be identified by various approaches, such as molecular methods and biochemical techniques (isoenzyme analysis of cultured parasites).

For visceral leishmaniasis, serologic testing can provide supportive evidence for the diagnosis. The performance of various serologic assays may vary by geographic region and by host factors (for example, the sensitivity of serologic testing generally is lower in HIV-coinfected patients, particularly if the HIV infection was acquired before the Leishmania infection). Most serologic assays do not reliably distinguish between active and quiescent infection.

No leishmanin skin-test preparation has been approved for use in the United States.

Note: For visceral leishmaniasis, although the diagnostic sensitivity typically is higher for splenic aspirates than for specimens from other organs/tissues, splenic aspiration can be associated with life-threatening hemorrhage, even if conducted under radiologic guidance. Bone marrow aspiration is much safer. Examples of other potential sources of specimens for diagnostic testing include liver, lymph node, and whole blood or buffy coat. Among HIV-infected patients, the parasite also may be found in atypical sites (such as the gastrointestinal tract).

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General Points

The information provided here does not constitute a primer on treating leishmaniasis; rather, the focus is on basic principles and perspective, geared towards clinicians treating patients in the United States. Treatment decisions should be individualized, with expert consultation. In general, all clinically manifest cases of visceral leishmaniasis and mucosal leishmaniasis should be treated, whereas not all cases of cutaneous leishmaniasis require treatment.

The treatment approach depends in part on host and parasite factors. Some approaches/regimens are effective only against certain Leishmania species/strains and only in particular geographic regions. Even data from well-conducted clinical trials are not necessarily generalizable to other settings. Of particular note, data from the many clinical trials of therapy for visceral leishmaniasis in parts of India are not necessarily directly applicable to visceral leishmaniasis caused by L. donovani in other areas, to visceral leishmaniasis caused by other species, or to treatment of cutaneous and mucosal leishmaniasis.

Special groups (such as young children, elderly persons, pregnant/lactating women, and persons who are immunocompromised or who have other comorbidities) may need different medications or dosage regimens.

The relative merits of various treatment approaches/regimens can be discussed with CDC staff . In addition, in the United States, special considerations apply regarding the availability of particular medications to treat leishmaniasis. For example:

  • One parenteral agent, liposomal amphotericin B (AmBisome®), which is administered by IV infusion, is FDA-approved for treatment of visceral leishmaniasis (the approved indications do not include cutaneous or mucosal leishmaniasis). This approval for visceral leishmaniasis dates back to 1997.
  • In 2014, FDA approved the oral agent miltefosine for treatment of cutaneous, mucosal, and visceral leishmaniasis caused by particular Leishmania species (see below for details), in adults and adolescents at least 12 years of age who weigh at least 30 kg (66 pounds). The FDA-approved treatment regimen for persons who weigh from 30 to 44 kg is as follows: one 50-mg oral capsule of miltefosine twice a day (total of 100 mg per day) for 28 consecutive days. The FDA-approved regimen for persons who weigh at least 45 kg (99 pounds) is one 50-mg capsule three times a day (total of 150 mg per day) for 28 consecutive days. Miltefosine is contraindicated in pregnant women. Women of reproductive potential should have a negative pregnancy test before starting therapy; they should be advised to use effective contraception during the treatment course and for 5 months thereafter. Nursing mothers should be advised not to breastfeed during the treatment course or for 5 months thereafter.
  • Some medications that might have merit for treating selected cases of leishmaniasis are commercially available in the United States but the FDA-approved indications do not include leishmaniasis. Examples of such medications include the parenteral agents amphotericin B deoxycholate and pentamidine isethionate, as well as the orally administered “azoles” (ketoconazole, itraconazole, and fluconazole).
  • Other medications that might have merit for treating selected cases of leishmaniasis currently are not available in the United States (such as the parenteral formulation of the aminoglycoside paromomycin) or are potentially available only through special mechanisms. For example, particular topical formations of paromomycin may be available through compounding pharmacies or may be imported under a single-patient treatment protocol.
  • Pentavalent antimonial (SbV) compounds, including sodium stibogluconate (Pentostam®), are the traditional mainstays for treating leishmaniasis since the 1940s. They have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not commercially available in the United States.
Cutaneous Leishmaniasis

Decisions about whether and how to treat should be individualized. The treatment approach depends in part on the Leishmania species/strain and the geographic area in which infection was acquired; the natural history of infection, the risk for mucosal dissemination/disease, the parasite’s drug susceptibilities in the pertinent setting; and the number, size, location, evolution, and other clinical characteristics of the patient’s skin lesions.

Treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis may be indicated to:

  • Decrease the risk for mucosal dissemination/disease (particularly for New World species in the Viannia subgenus; see Disease);
  • Accelerate the healing of the skin lesions;
  • Decrease the risk for relapse (clinical reactivation) of the skin lesions;
  • Decrease the local morbidity caused by large or persistent skin lesions, particularly those on the face or ears or near joints; and/or
  • Decrease the reservoir of infection in geographic areas where infected persons (vs. non-human animals) serve as reservoir hosts (such as in Kabul, Afghanistan, and other Leishmania tropica-endemic areas, where transmission is anthroponotic).

In general, the first sign of a therapeutic response to adequate treatment is decreasing induration (lesion flattening). The healing process for large, ulcerative lesions often continues after the end of therapy. Relapse (clinical reactivation) typically is noticed first at the margin of the lesion.

Systemic therapy (parenteral)

Conventional amphotericin B deoxycholate traditionally has been used as rescue therapy for cutaneous (and mucosal) leishmaniasis. Lipid formulations of amphotericin B typically are better tolerated than conventional amphotericin B. However, the data supporting their use for treatment of cutaneous (and mucosal) leishmaniasis are from case reports/series rather than from controlled clinical trials; standard dosage regimens have not been established. When liposomal amphotericin B has been used for treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis, patients typically have received 3 mg per kg daily, by IV infusion, for a total of 6 to 10 or more doses.

In the United States, pentamidine isethionate is uncommonly used for treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis. Its limitations include the potential for irreversible toxicity and variable effectiveness.

For pentavalent antimonial (SbV) therapy, the standard daily dose is 20 mg of SbV per kg, administered IV or IM. The traditional duration of therapy is 20 days for cutaneous leishmaniasis (10 days may suffice in some settings) and 28 days for mucosal (and visceral) leishmaniasis. For some patients, adjustment of the daily dose or the duration of therapy may be indicated. No standard IL treatment regimen has been established, various regimens have been used depending in part on the size and characteristics of the lesions.

Systemic therapy (oral)

In 2014, FDA approved the oral agent miltefosine for treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis in adults and adolescents who are not pregnant or breastfeeding. The FDA-approved indications are limited to infection caused by three particular species, all three of which are New World species in the Viannia subgenus—namely, Leishmania (V.) braziliensis, L. (V.) panamensis, and L. (V.) guyanensis. Even for these species, the effectiveness of miltefosine therapy has been variable in different geographic regions. Use of miltefosine for treatment of infection caused by other Leishmania species in the New World or by any species in the Old World would constitute off-label use, as would treatment of children less than 12 years of age. See above for additional perspective and considerations regarding miltefosine.

The “azoles” ketoconazole, itraconazole, and fluconazole—administered orally—have been used with mixed results, in various settings. For example:

  • Ketoconazole (adult regimen: 600 mg daily for 28 days) showed modest activity against L. mexicana and L. (V.) panamensis infection in small studies in Guatemala and Panama, respectively. However, itraconazole (adult regimen: 200 mg twice daily for 28 days) was ineffective against L. (V.) panamensis infection in a clinical trial in Colombia.
  • Use of fluconazole (adult regimen: 200 mg daily for 6 weeks) for treatment of L. major infection in various countries in the Old World has been associated with mixed results. Preliminary data from Iran suggested that a higher daily dose (400 vs. 200 mg) might be more effective against L. major infection. In northeastern Brazil, a low response rate to treatment with fluconazole (6.5–8.0 mg per kg per day for 28 days) was noted among adults infected with L. (V.) braziliensis.
Local therapy

Some cases of cutaneous leishmaniasis might be candidates for local therapy, in part depending on the risk, if any, for mucosal dissemination/disease and on the number, location, size, and other characteristics of the skin lesions. Examples of local therapies that might have utility in some settings include cryotherapy (with liquid nitrogen), thermotherapy (use of localized current field radiofrequency heat), intralesional (IL) administration of SbV, and topical application of particular formulations of paromomycin.

Visceral Leishmaniasis

The use of highly effective systemic therapy for leishmaniasis is important, as is supportive care—for example, therapy for malnutrition, anemia/bleeding, and intercurrent infections. For HIV-coinfected patients, antiretroviral therapy (ART) should be started or optimized according to standard practice; appropriate use of ART may delay relapses and improve survival.

Liposomal amphotericin B is FDA-approved for treatment of visceral leishmaniasis and generally is the treatment of choice for U.S. patients. Although various regimens have been suggested in the published literature, the FDA-approved regimen for immunocompetent patients consists of 3 mg per kg daily, by IV infusion, on days 1–5, 14, and 21 (total dose of 21 mg/kg). The FDA-approved regimen for immunosuppressed patients consists of 4 mg per kg daily on days 1–5, 10, 17, 24, 31, and 38 (total dose of 40 mg/kg). Some immunosuppressed patients, including HIV-coinfected patients with CD4 counts <200 cells/mm3, may need even higher total doses and/or secondary prophylaxis (chronic maintenance therapy). However, standard approaches to antileishmanial treatment and secondary prophylaxis have not been established—for example, the optimal agent, dose, and dosing interval for maintenance therapy are unknown. Conventional amphotericin B deoxycholate is highly effective therapy for visceral leishmaniasis but generally is more toxic than liposomal amphotericin B.

In 2014, FDA approved the oral agent miltefosine for treatment of visceral leishmaniasis caused by Leishmania donovani, in adults and adolescents who are not pregnant or breastfeeding. Use of miltefosine for visceral leishmaniasis caused by other species (e.g., L. infantum) would constitute off-label use, as would treatment of children less than 12 years of age. See above for additional perspective and considerations regarding miltefosine.

Pentavalent antimonial (SbV) therapy generally remains highly effective therapy for visceral leishmaniasis in most geographic regions, with the notable exception of parts of South Asia. The standard dosage regimen for immunocompetent patients consists of 20 mg of SbV per kg daily, IV or IM, for 28 days. For some patients, adjustment of the daily dose or the duration of therapy may be indicated.

Other parenteral agents that have merit in some settings include paromomycin sulfate (the chemical equivalent of aminosidine), which is not available for parenteral administration in the United States—and—pentamidine isethionate, a second-line agent whose limitations include suboptimal effectiveness (most notably in parts of South Asia) and the potential for irreversible toxicity.

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Prevention & Control

No vaccines or drugs to prevent infection are available.

The best way for travelers to prevent infection is to protect themselves from sand fly bites. Personal protective measures include minimizing nocturnal outdoor activities, wearing protective clothing, and applying insect repellent to exposed skin.

In general, prevention and control measures must be tailored to the local setting and typically are difficult to sustain. Control measures against sand fly vectors or animal reservoir hosts might be effective in some settings.

In many geographic areas where leishmaniasis is found in people, infected people are not needed to maintain the transmission cycle of the parasite in nature; animal reservoir hosts (such as rodents or dogs), along with sand flies, maintain the cycle. For example, in L. infantum/L. chagasi-endemic regions, dogs serve as the main reservoir hosts; control strategies for such areas are being evaluated.

In some parts of the world, infected people are needed to maintain the cycle; this type of transmission (human—sand fly—human) is called anthroponotic. For example, in the Indian Subcontinent (South Asia), the transmission of L. donovani is anthroponotic. In such areas, early detection and effective treatment of infected persons can serve as a control measure; suboptimal treatment can lead to development and spread of drug resistance. Because the transmission is intra- and peridomiciliary (rather than sylvatic), spraying houses with residual-action insecticides and using bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticides may be protective.

More on: Travelers and Leishmaniasis

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