Disease-spreading flies torment West Bank, northern Israel
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Disease-spreading flies torment West Bank, northern Israel

Local authorities concerned by growing number of cases of leishmaniasis, caused by a parasite borne by sandflies and resulting in open sores, skin lesions

A sandfly (CC BY-SA Commander Applebery/Flickr)
A sandfly (CC BY-SA Commander Applebery/Flickr)

A disease-spreading sandfly has been plaguing the central and northern West Bank as well as the Lower Galilee in recent months, prompting calls for increased government spending to address the threat.

Sandflies found in Israel and the surrounding areas often carry a parasite called Leishmania, which they contract from the rock hyrax, a small desert mammal native to the Middle East and Africa. People bitten by an infected sandfly develop leishmaniasis, an illness characterized by skin ulcers and open sores at the bite site that can take up to 18 months to fully heal.

Children are particularity vulnerable to leishmaniasis, as sandflies generally tend to fly close to the ground.

“It just keeps spreading, and so I think that we are in a national emergency,” Prof. Eli Schwartz, director of the Center for Geographic Medicine at Tel Hashomer, told Hadashot. “When you look at the outbreak distribution on a map, it covers about 50 percent of Israel.”

Skin lesions caused by leishmaniasis. (screen capture: Hadashot)

Schwartz said some communities in northern and central Israel had a 30% infection rate, and some area army bases were at 50%.

In 2016, dozens of cases of leishmaniasis were reported in the northern West Bank, mostly in the settlement of Tzofim. Locals at the time said the construction of the security barrier over the past decade led to a decrease in hyrax habitats, a charge the Defense Ministry firmly denied.

In Israel, rock hyrax are considered an endangered species, and killing the animal, even for population control, is illegal. Efforts by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to distance the rock hyrax from residential areas in recent years have only pushed the animals in the direction of other settlements in the area.

In Nili in the central West Bank, an electric fence was recently built in an effort to keep them away, but local residents say the measure has not helped, and packs of hyrax are seen roaming the settlement.

The mayor of the nearby city of Modiin told Hadashot that the money allocated for combating leishmaniasis was insufficient.

Haim Bibas said he has requested an urgent meeting with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and local leaders to discuss the issue.

A rock hyrax (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)
A rock hyrax (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

“The budgets allocated for this over the last four years are just not enough,” he said. “We are witnessing a leishmaniasis epidemic.”

In response to the report, several government agencies pledged to divert additional funds to help fight the spread of the disease, but blamed the lack of a coordinated response on one another.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said it was taking the growing number of cases in Israel “very seriously,” but claimed it was not allocated money in its 2019 budget for leishmaniasis treatment and prevention.

The Finance Ministry denied that claim, and said it had transferred NIS 30 million to fight leishmaniasis but the agency misused the funds.

“To this day, despite the time that’s passed, the Environmental Protection Ministry has not managed to spend the money to deal with the problem,” the treasury said, adding that the ministry had “chosen to use it for other issues.”

The Health Ministry also denied that leishmaniasis was reaching epidemic levels, and said data showed a decrease in the number of cases in recent years. The ministry said it was conducting epidemiological studies to monitor the spread of leishmaniasis and research better treatment options.

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