Mapping the geographic extent of tungiasis in sub-Saharan Africa

Study uses GBIF-mediated species occurrences to model the environmental suitability of tropical disease-causing parasite

Tunga penetrans
Tunga penetrans specimen collected in Gabon—slide (left) and magnification (right). Photos (merged) belonging to The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London (CC BY 4.0)

Tungiasis is a tropical disease caused by the burrowing of a tiny parasitic flea, Tunga penetrans, in the skin of the patient leading to painful and debilitating lesions. Despite representing a significant health burden, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, knowledge of the distribution of the parasite and disease in the region is extremely limited.

Based on various variables, including data on climate, soil, vegetation, land cover and livestock densities, this study models and maps the environmental suitability of the parasite based on known occurrences from literature and GBIF-mediated data.

The models identify suitable conditions for the parasite in nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa—with the exception of Namibia, Botswana and southern Mauritania. About half of the 44 countries with a high probability of occurrence already have reported cases of tungiasis.

An estimated total of 668 million people live in environmentally suitable areas covering 8.1 million km². In East Africa alone, the suitable area is home to 217 million people, with many living in poor rural communities with a high risk of increased suffering from tropical diseases.

While the study does not directly measure or predict tungiasis incidence, it provides insights into the potential distribution of the disease-causing parasite—valuable for future public health interventions in the region.

Deka MA (2020) Mapping the Geographic Distribution of Tungiasis in Sub-Saharan Africa. Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease. MDPI AG 5(3): 122. Available at: