The Tropical Disease That Targets Refugees

International Medical Corps is implementing a project in three refugee villages of North West Pakistan to prevent an aggressive skin disease that causes large, extremely painful open skin ulcers so unsightly that those afflicted are often shunned by their communities.

Refugees are especially susceptible to the disease, which is transmitted by the bite of parasite-infected sandflies that commonly thrive in dusty, overpopulated camps. Known scientifically as Cutaneous Leshimaniasis, it also has generated a variety of more colorful names that hint at its broad worldly reach—names such as Balkan sores, Baghdad boils and Jericho buttons.

Some patients traveled 40-50 miles to seek treatment, a hopeful attempt to prevent the disease from disfiguring them for life. International Medical Corps’ Project Officer, Dr. Saeed Ahmad reported, “Many patients told us that before these activities started, they had no knowledge regarding control and prevention of diseases of this type. International Medical Corps has been in these camps for over 10 years and as such the local community trusts us and were very positive about the services being delivered.”

International Medical Corps’ project targets the Afghan refugee community in Pakistan, the world’s largest protracted refugee community. The program has already reached 4,700 people through community education campaigns and the distribution of insecticide-treated nets. The program will also improve treatment of the disease and case referral for severe cases. In addition, International Medical Corps is training Ministry of Health staff on surveillance, diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

Aamir is five years old and lives with his family in a small mud house in a refugee camp where International Medical Corps is implementing the program. Due to the poor sanitary conditions in the camp, Aamir contracted the flesh-eating disease. His father, Qadir, brought Aamir to International Medical Crops’ treatment program after suffering for the past year with lesions on his nose and legs. Aamir received injections for 30 days and an insecticide-treated bed net. Finally, his lesions began to heal. Qadir says he is grateful to International Medical Corps for providing quality, free treatment for his family in their own backyard.

The most famous person to contract the disease is British TV personality and adventurer Ben Fogel, who was bitten by a sandfly in the Amazon jungle. He now works as an advocate to bring awareness of the disease. He told the Daily Mail, “Many people around the world… don’t have access to treatment. And the drugs are so archaic – there’s very little money being put into researching new treatments or cures,”

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 700,000 to 1.3 million cases of the unsightly malady occur around the world every year, two thirds of which occur in Afghanistan, Algeria, Brazil, Colombia, Iran and Syria.

International Medical Corps has provided relief following numerous major natural disasters in Pakistan and in 2005 was among the first to respond to a massive earthquake in the region. Today, International Medical Corps is the only organization providing primary health care services to internally-displaced Pakistanis and Afghan refugees in four refugee camps.

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