Chagas Disease is not a sexually transmitted disease, like HIV, which causes AIDS, but the disease is spreading throughout the Americas, often without being detected for decades. Chagas Disease originates with bites from winged insects called reduvid bugs or “kissing bugs”. These bugs carry a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, or American trypanosomiasis. The bugs pick up the parasites after biting humans or animals that already carry the parasite in their blood. Then the insects spread the parasite by leaving their feces on the skin.
According to RadioGraphics, the parasite invades the body via the bloodstream, and then settles in various organs, including the heart and the gastrointestinal tract (esophagus and colon).
Why is Chagas Disease being called the new HIV/AIDs of the Americas? According to MedicineNet, the disease is “…locally transmitted in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela.”
In other words, Chagas disease was once a central and South American problem, but thanks to travel and migration, the world is a much smaller place.
Humans pick up the parasite when the bug’s feces are deposited on the skin and the human rubs the feces into an open wound, the eyes, or wherever the parasite can enter the bloodstream. Humans can pass the parasite to other humans through pregnancy or blood transfusions where the host’s blood is infected with the parasite.
Migration to North America and tourism to Central and South America are ways for Chagas disease to spread. But the claim is that most hotels and better housing offers a greatly reduced chance of taking on the parasite. Living in mud, adobe or thatch huts that have reduvid bugs in the walls are conditions that are ripe for infection with Chagas disease. Poverty leads to such living conditions.
Once the parasite gains a foothold in the human body, it may be 20 years before diagnosis and discovery, if the condition is ever discovered. The disease has two critical stages, as described by PubMed Health: Acute and Chronic. Medicine Net adds a third stage: the Indeterminate Stage.
The Acute Stage has no symptoms or very mild symptoms, including fever, malaise, swelling of one eye, swollen red area at site of insect bite. Only about 1 percent of infected humans ever show symptoms in the acute stage according to the Medicine Net article.
The Indeterminate Stage starts at 8 to 10 weeks after infection. Humans do not have symptoms at this stage.
The Chronic Stage starts about 20 years after infection and threatens the infected person with the most deadly and serious symptoms of infection.
Cardiac and chest problems include altered heart rates, palpitations and arrhythmia. Cardiac failure and ultimate cardiac arrest can occur. The infected person may suffer chest pains similar to those caused by angina.
Digestive problems include difficulty with swallowing, digestive problems, abdominal pain, and constipation.
Organ problems include enlarged liver, spleen and lymph nodes. Pulmonary edema and gross dilation of the esophagus are also possible in the chronic stage.
If a person suspects that they or someone else is at risk for having contracted Chagas disease, then various tests are available, including:
Peripheral blood smear
The Pub Med article calls for treatment at the acute phase, for reactivated Chagas disease, and for Infants born with the infection. Two drugs, benznidazole and nifurtimox are used to treat Chagas disease. These drugs have side effects of headaches and dizziness, neuropathy, sleep disorder, skin rash, and loss of appetite and weight loss.
In summary, there are ways to avoid contracting Chagas disease, there are treatments for the acute and chronic stages, and there is now word that the disease presents a threat to a growing population in south, central and north America. Anyone who thinks that they may have contracted the disease or may be at risk should make inquiries with their treating physicians or at clinics.