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Climate change could fuel the spread of a flesh-eating parasite

Climate change could fuel the spread of a flesh-eating parasite

Scientists caution that as the planet warms, more Americans could be exposed to varieties of a deadly parasite

hree years ago, Laura Gaither and her family spent their summer vacation in Panama City Beach, Florida. One afternoon, while rinsing sand off her feet, the 35-year-old Alabama resident felt something biting her legs and noticed tiny black bugs on her skin. Gaither brushed them away, and later, when she described the bites to local residents, they told her that she had likely been bitten by sand flies.

Three of Gaither's five kids had been bitten, too, but she didn't worry. The marks on their legs and arms looked like ant or mosquito bites, which can cause burning and itching, but usually subside within a week.

But about two weeks later, back at home, Gaither noticed that the bites had morphed into small open wounds. They worsened over the next couple of weeks, but when she took her children to their pediatrician, "he just chalked it up to eczema," Gaither said. Eventually Gaither took her young daughter, whose condition was the most concerning, to the emergency room at Children's of Alabama, where she was tested for fungal and bacterial infections. The results came back negative, and the anti-fungal and steroid topical creams the doctors prescribed proved ineffective. Meanwhile, the ulcers kept growing larger and more painful.

Gaither started doing her own research and learned about a flesh-eating disease called cutaneous leishmaniasis (pronounced leash-ma-NYE-a-sis). This skin disease is caused by more than 20 species of Leishmania parasites. It can be transmitted to humans through the bite of some sand flies after the flies themselves have been infected by animals — usually rodents in the United States — whose blood the insects feed on. Sand flies thrive in hot sandy beaches and in rural areas, and they had been particularly abundant in Florida in 2018, Gaither was told during her visit.