Epidemiologic Investigation of an Outbreak of Cutaneous Leishmaniasis in a Defined Geographic Focus of Transmission

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  • Division of Preventive Medicine, Division of Experimental Therapeutics, and Division of Communicable Diseases and Immunology, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Preventive Medicine Division, Academy of the Health Sciences, U.S. Army, WorkMED Occupational Health Network, Washington, DC

An outbreak of cutaneous leishmaniasis occurred in a unit of 608 Puerto Rican national guardsmen conducting jungle warfare training in the Panama Canal Area in July 1984. An epidemiologic investigation of reported nonhealing, ulcerating skin lesions was conducted among 540 (89%) unit members in November and December 1984. Fifteen (88%) of 17 individuals with chronic, ulcerating skin lesions were confirmed as cases of cutaneous leishmaniasis by culture or histopathology. Twelve cases yielded positive Leishmania cultures, identified as L. braziliensis panamensis by cellulose acetate electrophoresis. Evaluation of different diagnostic techniques revealed that direct examination of tissues by Giemsa-stained histological examination was the most sensitive test (87% sensitivity), with an indirect immunofluorescent antibody test being rather insensitive (67%). All but one of the confirmed cases operated in small units that trained and slept overnight at a mortar firing site for a period of three days, yielding a site-specific attack rate of 22% (14 of 64). This contrasted with a much lower attack rate of 0.2% (1 of 476), experienced by unit members who trained at other locations during the same time frame (P < 0.001). The median incubation period calculated from day of arrival at the mortar firing site was 17 days (range 2–78) for the 15 confirmed cases. Available personal protection methods, such as the use of insect repellents, were not appropriately implemented by unit personnel and thus, were not found to effectively protect against Leishmania infection. This is the largest reported outbreak of cutaneous leishmaniasis in military personnel associated with a single geographic focus of infection and contrasts with the usual sporadic disease experience in Panama.