Disfiguring disease caused by bites of sand flies spreading in conflict-ridden areas in Middle East

Iraqi refugees, who fled from the violence in Mosul, use containers to collect water inside the Khazer refugee camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan.Reuters

As if the medical emergency brought by the Zika virus is not yet enough for the public to worry about, a new disease is sweeping across the Middle East, and experts say the terror group Islamic State (ISIS) is largely to blame for it.

The continuing conflict in Middle Eastern countries is not only causing thousands of deaths and widespread destruction of properties. It is also fuelling the spread of the disfiguring tropical disease called cutaneous leishmaniasis.

Based on a recent report published in the scientific journal PLOS, hundreds of thousands of people living in refugee camps or trapped in conflict zones are already infected with leishmaniasis, which causes very unpleasant open sores and disfiguring skin lesions.

Peter Hotez, dean of the U.S. National School of Tropical Medicine, U.S. science envoy to the Middle East, and lead author of the PLOS research, said the disease must be contained immediately to prevent an epidemic.

He explained that millions of displaced Syrians may carry the disease to neighbouring countries as well as nations like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Leishmaniasis is transmitted exclusively through bites from sand flies.

"We're seeing lots of diseases, including leishmaniasis in these conflict zones and we need to ring-fence them, by providing access to essential medicines for cutaneous leishmaniasis sufferers living in conflict zones, or risk another situation like Ebola out of the conflict zones in West Africa in 2014," Hotez was quoted by The Independent as saying.

Dr. Waleed Al-Salem, consultant at Saudi Ministry of Health and formerly of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, meanwhile explained that the destruction brought by the war has created an ideal breeding ground for the sand flies that carry the disgusting disease.

"Many areas in Syria and temporary refugee settlements are pre-disposed to cases due to factors such as rubbish accumulation, bad sanitation and poor housing. This coupled with abundant sand fly populations and wanting medical facilities has created an environment for the disease to thrive," Al-Salem also told The Independent.

Worse, since the ISIS tends to destroy structures including hospitals, locals could not have the disease treated.

Al-Salem nevertheless assured that the disease in unlikely to affect European nations that have been accepting refugees.

"Countries where sand flies are not common and where living standards and medical facilities are far more proficient are not in danger of cutaneous leishmaniasis," he explained.