Expedition to Honduran rain forest returns with a startling discovery—and a stubborn strain of a tropical disease.

Photo by Dave Yoder, Natl Geographic

Archaeologist Chris Fisher explores ruins of an ancient culture in the Mosquitia jungle of eastern Honduras in February 2015. Like several other members of the team, Fisher contracted the tropical disease leishmaniasis during the expedition.

Members of a successful recent expedition to find a lost city in the Honduran rain forest have returned to the United States with an unwelcome souvenir: infections from the tropical disease leishmaniasis. The illness was transmitted by sand flies that swarmed the explorers in stinging clouds.

About half the people on the expedition, described in the October issue of National Geographic, have been diagnosed with the illness, which is caused by parasites that break down the skin and can cause weeping, potentially disfiguring sores.

Five were so ill that they were sent for treatment at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health, one of the few U.S. medical institutions that research the disease and regularly treat patients.

The team members have returned to their homes, and most of them have recovered—but the episode has been an unexpected reminder of the dangers that can dog even the best-prepared fieldwork.

“I’m not Indiana Jones,” Chris Fisher, an archaeologist at Colorado State University and a  National Geographic grantee, said ruefully. “I’m not an adventurer; I’m a scientist. I’m very, very careful in the field. So this was an unexpected thing.”

Leishmaniasis is barely known in North America but very common in Central and South America and the Middle East. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there may be more than one million cases a year, caused by different subspecies of the parasite.

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