Medical Definition of Kala-azar

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Kala-azar: A chronic and potentially fatal parasitic disease of the viscera (the internal organs, particularly the liver, spleen, bone marrow and lymph nodes) due to infection by the parasite called Leishmania donovani.

Leishmania donovani, the agent of kala-azar, is transmitted by sandfly bites in parts of Asia (primarily India), Africa (primarily Sudan) and South America (primarily Brazil) where all together there are an estimated half million cases per year. There are also several hundred cases yearly in Europe (primarily in the Mediterranean region) and a few in North America.

Kala-azar can cause no or few symptoms but typically it is associated with fever, loss of appetite (anorexia), fatigue, enlargement of the liver, spleen and nodes and suppression of the bone marrow. Kala-azar also increases the risk of other secondary infections. The first oral drug found to be effective for treating kala-azar is miltefosine.

The term "kala-azar" comes from India where it is the Hindi for black fever. The disease is also known as Indian leishmaniasis, visceral leishmaniasis, leishmania infection, dumdum fever, black sickness, and black fever.

The name "Leischmania donovani" honors two men: the British pathologist William Boog Leishman who in 1903 wrote about the protozoa that causes kala-azar and the researcher C. Donovan, who made the same discovery independently the same year.

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Reviewed on 12/11/2018

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