With an epidemic of cutaneous leishmaniasis in Afghanistan threatening to escalate out of control without immediate action, the United Nations health agency today launched an emergency campaign combining drug treatment and insecticide-treated nets to curb the debilitating skin disease spread by sand flies.
“We must act now if we are going to have any chance of controlling the situation,” said Dr. Philippe Desjeux, the head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) leishmaniasis control programme. “This is a unique opportunity to stop a debilitating disease in its tracks, and make gains in a country where people so deserve to see improvements to their health.”
Cutaneous leishmaniasis leads to disfigurement usually on the face and hands, and social stigma, particularly for women and children.
The rapid intervention by the WHO and its partners, the Massoud Foundation and HealthNet International in Kabul, the Afghan capital, made possible by a donation from the Belgian Government, should dramatically reduce the disease in less than two years. Kabul is the largest centre of cutaneous leishmaniasis in the world, with an estimated 67,500 cases – a third of the 200,000 cases in all of Afghanistan.
The provision of first-line drugs has been secured by WHO in collaboration with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health. At the same time, 16,000 insecticide-treated bednets will be distributed throughout Kabul and will help to protect nearly 30 000 people.
As a result of the €200,000 (euro) Belgian grant, the initiative is a timely intervention that aims to curtail the peak transmission season from September to October, the first phase of a one-year plan to implement a national control programme.
If the initial initiative is successful in Kabul, it will then be replicated in other parts of Afghanistan. While effective control programmes once existed in the country, the past two decades of ongoing conflict has gravely weakened much of the health infrastructure.