Mr. Norris, your recent “C-Force” articles on the diseases caused by deer ticks (Lyme disease) and tapeworms (neurocysticercosis) were very enlightening. However, I just read a new health alert from England about another rapidly growing disease in North America: Chagas’ disease. Heard of it? – Sincerely, Sean R., Wisconsin
Yes. Chagas’ disease is another parasite-based disease, and it is so pervasive here and in South America that Baylor College of Medicine’s Peter J. Hotez and his colleagues are calling it “the new AIDS of the Americas.”
Chagas’ disease got its name from the Brazilian physician Charles Chagas, who first recognized the disease in 1909 – though it had been around for more than 9,000 years (even discovered in mummies from the ancient Chinchorro culture of South America).
WebMD has just posted an excellent article on Chagas’ disease, explaining that it is caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. Once human cells are infected by the parasite and it multiplies within them, those cells burst and deploy the parasites into the bloodstream.
The acute phase of Chagas’ (in the initial weeks and months of infection) is often unnoticed because symptoms can be minor and similar to those of the flu – fatigue, body aches, fever, headaches, appetite loss, rashes, vomiting and diarrhea. (There is one unique symptom, which I’ll discuss momentarily.) But in some cases, it can take years for symptoms to manifest themselves.
However, symptoms in the chronic phase manifest themselves in about a third of those infected, and they can have devastating effects to the heart, intestines and nervous system. Digestive problems, including an enlarged esophagus and difficulty swallowing, can occur, too.
WebMD continues: “The most common complication of chronic Chagas disease is a heart condition called chronic Chagas cardiomyopathy. These complications include enlarged heart, heart failure, severely altered heart rhythm and heart attack.”
About 25 percent of infected people develop an enlarged heart or intestines – which can burst suddenly, causing immediate death.
An estimated 10 million to 20 million people worldwide have Chagas’ disease, with most being in Mexico, Central America and South America. About 30,000 people in North America have been infected with the parasite, with troubled areas most prevalent in the southern U.S., particularly in Texas and along the Gulf Coast. Most U.S. cases have been found in immigrants.
The interesting aspect about the increase in North America is that the parasite doesn’t even originate here. But with the increases in global transport of people and food, it is spreading worldwide. Cases have been discovered as far as Europe and Japan.
Dr. Jennifer House, from the Indiana State Department of Health, recently reported, “It’s a parasite that is transmitted in Central and South America, so we don’t actually have the parasite here in the United States; now, individuals that … originated from those high-risk countries could actually come back to Indiana.”
So how is it transmitted? In many ways, but the most common is through the bites of various bloodsucking insects called triatomes – better known as kissing bugs, cone-nosed bugs, assassin bugs and reduviid bugs. Eleven of these bug species live in the southern U.S. and are found as far west as Northern California and as far east as Pennsylvania. Many are nocturnal, so they do their dirty work at night.
Brace yourself for this next bit of information.
The bugs are attracted to lips (hence the nickname “kissing bugs”) yet are indiscriminate about where they bite to get blood. However, it’s not the bite that transmits Chagas’ parasites. It’s the bugs’ waste that is infected and dropped around the open wound and then often smeared into it or another orifice on our bodies when we scratch the infected area and spread the waste. One unique sign of Chagas’ disease is called Romana’s sign, which is the swelling of one’s eyelids after one rubs his eyes with infected bug waste.
As noted in my articles on bedbugs and tick bites, the best method of prevention is to stay out of heavily invested areas of insects or brush. Use ample amounts of insect repellant on you, on your loved ones and in your yard. Examine your and your children’s clothes when re-entering the house after being outside. Regularly change your bedsheets, and look under and around mattresses. And regularly examine and bathe your pets (they sleep with you at an added risk!). Lastly, sanitize bug bites; don’t scratch them.
WebMD explains other ways that the Chagas’ parasite can be spread:
“By getting a blood transfusion or organ transplant from an infected person.
“By eating undercooked foods contaminated with infected bugs or their droppings.
“By eating undercooked game infected with Chagas parasites.
“From mother to child during pregnancy or during breastfeeding.
“In laboratory accidents.
“In South America, people have been infected with Chagas parasites through contaminated cane juice, acai juice, guava juice and palm wine.”
Obviously, ensuring proper testing and sanitization in medical procedures and the production and preparation of foods and beverages, etc., is paramount to avoiding Chagas’ parasites. It should be noted, however, that unlike AIDS, Chagas’ cannot be transmitted via sexual intercourse.
According to WebMD, only two drugs are used to treat Chagas’ disease – nifurtimox and benznidazole – neither of which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. And in the U.S., they can be obtained only through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unfortunately and tragically, little research has been done to find new treatments for Chagas’, though Kaiser Health News just reported that an international team of 30 scientists concluded a decade of research and “has decoded the genome of one of the main vectors of Chagas disease, paving the way for more targeted vector control and new ways to prevent disease transmission.”
If you or your loved ones are experiencing any symptoms mentioned above, immediately contact your physician or health practitioner.