Why would a rare tropical disease cause such immediate alert in the US? Until now, Chagas disease was known only to those unfortunate 300,000 Americans who had bad fortune to get infected. But, since a large number of scientists published an editorial in the Neglected Tropical Diseases journal PLOS and called Chagas “the new AIDS of the Americas”, they immediately got our attention.
What is Chagas disease?
According to the CDC, Chagas disease or American trypanosomiasis is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted by the ” ˜kissing” ™ or Triatomine bugs, which feed on human and animal blood. These bugs are found only in poor rural parts of the Americas. Unfortunately, because of our hunger for traveling, nobody is immune any more. You might have brought more than souvenirs from your last trip to the Amazon or Machu Pichu.
Immediately after being bitten, you might develop fever or swelling around the bite site. In some rare cases, people develop serious inflammation of the heart or the brain and brain lining. During this acute phase it is possible to find the parasite in the blood. But, most people do not develop any symptoms and the parasite goes into hiding. While most people live their lives without being aware of carrying the parasite, about 30 percents develop serious health issues, such as heart arrhythmia, which can be deadly, a dilated heart, which is unable to pump blood efficiently and a dilated colon or esophagus, causing problems with eating or eliminating waste.
Chagas and AIDS
The scientists who drew attention to the similarities between the Chagas disease and early days of HIV/AIDS say that the similarities are important enough to alert us to the possible dangers of Chagas: the disease affects mostly poor people, the disease is chronic and often life-long, there are very few treatments available, and those are expensive and toxic. Chagas disease is not sexually transmitted, but it affects stronger people with low immune system.
Who is at risk?
The triatomine bugs are commonly found in mud walls and thatched roofs in poor villages in Central and Latin America. The CDC estimates that there are about 11 million people living with this parasite. The disease can also be transmitted from mother to baby and by blood transfusion. If you are traveling through rural areas of the countries where triatomine bugs are endemic, use bug repellant generously, protect your skin from insect bites and try to stay in clean hotels and guest houses which are regularly sprayed for insects. The stronger your immune system is, the more resistant you are from the infection, so eat well, stay hydrated and rest frequently. If you think you have been infected by Chagas, see the doctor immediately. Local doctors actually might know more about how to treat the disease than your American physician. The drugs for Chagas disease in the US are available only through CDC.