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Military pushes war on sand flies

  • sand fly.jpg

    A sand fly, Phlebotomus papatasi, can transmit parasites that cause leishmaniasis, a disease that can cause permanent skin damage and severe organ damage.Stephen Ausmus / USDA

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    A leishmania culture, a parasite carried by sand flies that poses a real problem for troops in desert areas.Fujita Health University School of Medicine

When deployed to the sandbox, enemy troops aren’t the only menace.

A just published USDA report revealed that sand flies -- tiny, winged gnats often called no-see-ums -- were biting troops in Iraq as many as 1,000 times in a single night. These pests are rife in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan.

Beyond being seriously annoying, female sand flies also carry a parasite called Leishmania. Just one bite from an infected sand fly can cause the very dangerous disease called leishmaniasis – something for which there is no cure, no vaccine, no medicine.

Some people contract cutaneous leishmania which often appear immediately as skin sores at the site of the bite. However, systemic leishmania can have a stealthy delayed brutal sudden onset of symptoms. It may take two to several months later before the disease rears its head.

The disease is best known for its painful skin sores and ulcers that can occur in the mouth, tongue, gums, lips, nose, and inner nose of the infected soldier, but skin disfigurement and severe organ damage can sometimes be permanent.

The good news is that help is finally on the way.

It is on, sand flies

Enymologists -- bug experts to you and me -- at the Knipling-Bushland U.S. Livestock Insects Research Laboratory in Kerrville, Texas, are making headway researching different ways to kill this menace.

With funding from the Deployed War-Fighter Protection Research Program, Andrew Li and Adalberto Pérez de León have been seeking solutions.

Their study “DWFP: A Battle Plan To Protect U.S. Troops From Harmful Insects,” in the November/December 2012 issue of Agricultural Research magazine, evaluated

the efficacy of a variety of insecticides.

To test them out, the researchers created their own sand fly colony, which will be used to develop and test new insecticides as well study sand fly resistance.

“The trouble with most widely used insecticides is that we have fewer available active ingredients for public-health pest control, and at the same time, we have a global increase in insecticide resistance to our best chemical tools,” said U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Burkett, research liaison officer with the Armed Forces Pest Management Board.

Over in Greece, defeating the sand fly threat is also a priority for the

ARS European Biological Control Laboratory in Thessaloniki, which has focused on sand fly leishmaniasis transmission in Greece.

ARS is USDA’s principal intramural scientific research agency and results from this research could also help find a solution to this ongoing threat to U.S. military personnel.