What is visceral leishmaniasis?

Visceral leishmaniasis (VL), commonly known as kala-azar or black fever, is a parasitic disease contracted via sandfly. Sandflies often live in the crevices of walls made of mud and in tropical environments.

The global annual incidence estimate of VL is between 201,500 and 378,500 cases and just six countries have 90% of the world’s detected visceral leishmaniasis cases. Within those six countries are India and Bangladesh, both of which we work in.

The disease causes fevers, weight loss and often leads to the failure of several vital organs. It can also affect the immune system and, if not treated within the first two episodes, VL can be fatal. However, the symptoms can take several months to appear. Many communities also aren’t aware of the causes and symptoms of VL which means that often individuals are diagnosed at a later stage when it’s too late to be treated.

VL also contributes to poverty and is known as "the poor man’s disease". Preventing individuals from working, it can force those already living in poor conditions further into poverty. The medical costs involved can also be quite high which again has an impact on an individual and family’s well-being.


VL is endemic in 54 districts across four Indian States. Bihar is even considered the epicentre of VL in South Asia with 33 out of 38 Districts of the worst affected. The state alone reports over 70% of the total number of VL cases in India, with nearly 35 million people at risk of contracting the disease.

Two-thirds of VL cases in this area are women and children, with high mortality rates among these vulnerable groups. The disease also affects livelihoods as well as health and in Bihar it’s reported that nearly 5 months of work is lost due to the illness.


Cases of VL have been reported since the 1800s in Bangladesh and now, two hundred years on, the disease remains prevalent. It is endemic in several Bangladeshi areas and between 2014 and 2015 the country reported an average of some 600 new cases. However, it is thought that there is substantial underreporting of the figures and that there are many more affected.


There is no vaccine for VL but it can be cured by undergoing a course of treatment. If not treated, the disease can be fatal.

Preventative measures and early case detection are key to preventing the number of deaths as a result of VL.

How we help

We want to do more to prevent contraction of the disease and help those affected access treatment at an earlier stage. We plan to educate children, women and men on the symptoms and causes so they can take the steps to prevent contraction themselves. This should reduce the number of those affected by VL and help in the global goal to ensure no one is left behind.

We plan to:

  • Provide health education on VL
  • Help implement prevention methods such as cleaning breeding sites, performing indoor residual spraying and distributing bed nets
  • Train health workers and practitioners on what to look for and how to care for those affected

How you can help

To help support our work in tackling this disease and helping the children, women and men affect by VL, click here.