In Morocco, a geographic approach to fight leishmaniasis

Naima Abattouy focuses her research on leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by sand flies. Her research will allow her to learn more on the disease and eventually find how to stop its spreading.

Since her first microscope observations, Naima Abattouy has always been fascinated by parasites, their relationship with their hosts and their implications for human health. During her PhD, she chose to study the Anisakis nematode, which can infect humans who eat raw or underprocessed fish. Naima now plans to turn her attention to Leishmania, one of the major parasites affecting rural populations in Morocco.

Leishmania species are single-celled parasites which are transmitted to humans by the bite of their tiny sandfly vectors. Depending on the species, Leishmania infection results in different forms of leishmaniasis, a disease endemic in 88 countries. Cutaneous leishmaniasis, the most common form with nearly 2 million new cases every year, causes disfiguring skin lesions, whilst the more rare visceral (in which the parasites accumulate in the liver, spleen and bone marrow) can be fatal without treatment.

Three species of Leishmania are responsible for the disease in Morocco. Because of the worrying increase in the incidence and geographical distribution of this disease in her country, Naima plans to analyse the risk factors associated with infection by the most common species, L. tropica.

She will study three sites in the Settat province of Morocco where regular leishmaniasis outbreaks occur.

But before returning to Morroco, she will first have training in unique techniques of identifying and capturing sandflies, such as aspiration and light trap methods. By offering free diagnostic sessions to the villagers, she will determine the past and current incidence of cutaneous leishmaniasis. Through interviews, she will also establish whether certain elements of the villagers’ lifestyle could encourage the presence of sandflies, as these insects are known to lay their eggs in the cracks of houses and in household rubbish, for example.

This data, coupled with information on climatic and ecological conditions in the study zones, will allow her to produce disease distribution maps and to develop a predictive model to show how different demographic, socioeconomic and climatic conditions constitute risk factors for leishmaniasis infection.

Naima hopes that her research will help health authorities put in place more effective control measures for leishmaniasis and, in this way, protect millions of people from this socially debilitating disease.

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