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Leishmaniasis is a parasitical infection spread by sandflies. It is a significant health problem all over the world. Hundreds of millions of people (as well as animals) in nearly 100 tropical, sub-tropical, and Southern European countries are at risk. Occasional occurrences in the U.S. have been reported from the southern states of Texas and Oklahoma.

It is estimated that more than 10 million people are currently suffering from the disease, and new infection rates are in the 2 million range. Making the situation worse, global warming trends have led to the spread of sandfly territory.


The disease appears in three distinct forms. Cutaneous leishmaniasis causes open skin sores at the bite site which may spread. The mucosal form produces ulcer formation on mucus membranes such as the mouth, nose, or throat. And, finally the worst form, visceral leishmaniasis affects internal organs such as the spleen, liver, and bone marrow for example. The third form can be fatal.

Once bitten by an infected sandfly, symptoms of the cutaneous form usually appear with a few weeks to a few months while the visceral version may take years. It may start just like the formation of a pimple that eventually opens and form sores on the skin. Sores tend to stay open and spread. Sores that do heal leave an ugly build-up of scar tissue in its place.

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When sores stay open, they appear similar to a crater with a rugged edge at the circumference. Pain can vary from mild to severe. Lymph nodes tend to be swollen near the ulcer sites. Fever is common. Another key indicator is a very enlarged spleen.

Confirmation of suspected leishmaniasis occurs by taking a careful patient history including past travels and by laboratory blood tests. Infected patients tend to have low red, white, and platelet counts. Furthermore, the parasite can be detected in a drop of blood under the microscope.

Typical prevention measures include bite prevention (mosquito nets, sprays, window screens), sandfly abatement programs using pesticides, healthy water management infrastructures, education and support to high-risk populations.


The population at most risk are poor people with chronic poor nutrition and suppressed immunity, those living in or near deforested regions, rural areas, and those with no or little access to sanitation or health care. Like many blood-borne diseases it may also be spread through sharing needles and from a mother to a fetus.

Pharmaceutical treatment of infected humans relies on pentavalent antimonials, amphotericin B, or pentamidine which are expensive and carry the risk of severe adverse reactions. In addition, the parasite is quickly developing a resistance to these drugs.

In trying to address the urgent need for new, safe, effective, and affordable remedies against leishmaniasis, two teams investigated novel compounds found in numerous plants including cannabis.


One team of researchers from Havanna, Cuba, Vienna, Austria, and Alabama, U.S. examined the effects of three biologically active ingredients against the parasite. In this experiment, scientists used the terpenoid carvacrol, the CB2 activating cannabinoid caryophellene (as an oxide), and the terpene ascaridole in varying combinations to determine their effectiveness against leishmaniasis.[1]

Results showed that in both the laboratory phase as well as the animal study (mice), a ratio of 1:4 of ascaridole and carvacrol respectively was the best combination resulting in significant benefits in both the laboratory and the animal phase of the experiment.

The other team from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil conducted a laboratory experiment on various natural compounds which suggests that the CB2 activating beta-caryophellene constitutes a safe and attractive molecule against leishmaniasis.


Furthermore, the Brazilian researchers indicated that oils standardized for their beta-caryophellene content could provide an affordable treatment for leishmaniasis in areas where the disease is endemic.[2]

The Cannabis Health Index already documents the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids for 129 chronic conditions and stubborn symptoms. With the results from research studies such as these…the sky is the limit.

[1] Jacinta Pastor, Marley García, Silvia Steinbauer, William N. Setzer, Ramón Scull, Lars Gille, Lianet Monzote. Combinations of ascaridole, carvacrol, and caryophyllene oxide against Leishmania. Acta Tropica 145 (2015) 31–38.

[2] Soares DC, Portella NA, Ramos MF, Siani AC, Saraiva EM. Trans-β-Caryophyllene: An Effective Antileishmanial Compound Found in Commercial Copaiba Oil (Copaifera spp.). Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:761323.

Uwe Blesching is a medical journalist and regular contributor in the fields of cannabinoid science, mind-body medicine, phytopharmacology, and more. Blesching earned his PhD from the Western Institute for Social Research. Much of the information from his most recent book, The Cannabis Health Index, has been made available on Cannabis Reports as well.


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