TRES ESQUINAS MILITARY BASE, Colombia - Colombian Army troops must dodge land mines and ambushes in their offensive against rebels in the jungle, but one of their biggest obstacles is the lowly sand fly.
Leishmaniasis, caused by sand-fly bites that produce nasty open sores and swelling, now forces more troops from the battlefield into hospitals than gunshots and mine blasts combined. It has hampered the army's unprecedented onslaught to wipe out the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Caused by a parasite living in the sand fly's gut, the disease is found in parts of 88 countries, mostly tropical or subtropical. U.S. soldiers in Iraq call it "Baghdad boil," and last year, hundreds of them had to be ferried home for treatment.
In Colombia, about 2,500 soldiers were hospitalized last year for leishmaniasis - up more than threefold from 2003 and more than double the 1,150 injured in combat, Defense Ministry officials said.
"Our soldiers are going into jungle regions where they've never been before and the rise in leishmaniasis cases is one of the unfortunate results," Dr. Hector Navarro, top medical adviser at the ministry, told The Associated Press at the Tres Esquinas military base in southern Colombia. He said it usually takes about a month for soldiers, receiving daily injections to combat leishmaniasis, to recover.
The government is now issuing the troops with long-sleeved T-shirts, teaching them to use bug spray and ensuring medicine is available, Navarro said. Medicine alone costs more than $425 per affected soldier.
Leishmaniasis has especially afflicted troops spearheading the offensive known as Plan Patriot deep into Colombia's steamy southern jungles that began last year and is aimed at capturing or killing rebel leaders.
"The soldiers make camp at sundown, sit down against a tree to relax, and unbutton their fatigues, leaving them totally exposed to sand flies," Navarro said.
Ronald Bonilla, 21, got the disease while fighting in the southern Cacqueta province. He's been getting treatment at a military clinic in Bogota for nearly three months, but the ugly, itchy boil on his chin won't go away.
"I'm going to have this for the rest of my life," said the distraught soldier, who said he had been living and fighting in the jungle for seven months straight when he got infected.
"I used repellent, I slept in hammocks with netting, I did everything to avoid it, but when you're out there for so long, it's impossible to avoid getting bitten," he said.
The guerrillas are also suffering, judging by the thousands of tubes of leishmaniasis medicine netted in raids on their camps last year.
The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that the disease is so prevalent in the deepest jungles of Colombia that it is seen as a way of identifying insurgents or their supporters, and that the army may choose to detain mobile clinics carrying medication.
Leishmaniasis causes large bumps and open sores on the skin, and if untreated, can cause permanent disfigurement. Many soldiers regard leishmaniasis scars as a badge of honor, proving they have been on the front lines pressing the offensive against the insurgents.
On a recent day, troops heading into the jungle at the Miraflores military base in southern Colombia proudly pulled up their sleeves to show a reporter their leishmaniasis scars.
Gen. Carlos Alberto Fracica, Plan Patriot's field commander, sought to play down the concerns.
"Getting leishmaniasis is like getting the common cold. You get it,
you take some medicine and you're back on the battlefield. It's nothing,"
On the Net: World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/leishmaniasis/en/