Chagas disease: The new HIV/AIDS of the Americas?

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    Chagas disease, an insect-borne parasitic disease, is common in Central and South America, with more than 8 million people affected by the illness and over 23,000 deaths from it annually. While commonplace in Latin America, Chagas disease is widely unheard of in the United States — until now.

    chagas diseaseA report from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) warns the public that uncommonly warm weather is encouraging a migration northward of kissing bugs, the insect responsible for transmitting Chagas disease.

    Though the disease can be asymptomatic and stay dormant for years, there are a few signs to be aware of:

    • Fever
    • Swelling of one eye
    • Malaise
    • Swollen, red area around the bite
    • Constipation
    • Digestive issues
    • Abdominal pain
    • Enlarged liver
    • Enlarged spleen
    • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
    • Swollen lymph nodes

    Caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi (T.cruzi), Chagas disease affects a suspected 300,000 people in the United States, though only 7 cases were reported last year. The low incidence of reporting is likely related to how the disease mimics other, less serious issues, and is often without symptoms.

    chagas disease

    A report from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) warns the public that uncommonly warm weather is encouraging a migration northward of kissing bugs, the insect responsible for transmitting Chagas disease. (Shutterstock photo)

    People with the highest risks for Chagas disease include:

    • People living in poverty
    • People who have received a blood transfusion from an infected donor
    • Individuals living in huts, thatched buildings, or poorly constructed buildings
    • People living in or who recently visited Central or South America

    Back in 1835, Charles Darwin was on a trip to Argentina when he recorded a bite from what he described as a great, wingless, black bug. Darwin wrote of the creepy the sensation of the bugs crawling on his arm, and how the insects were thin before they took their blood meal.

    According to researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Darwin was likely the victim of kissing bug bites, and while he officially died from heart issues (as many Chagas disease victims do too), it’s entirely possible the condition was aggravated by Chagas disease.

    A major reason why Chagas disease hasn’t taken firm root yet in the United States is because of the higher building standards in the country.

    Kissing bugs are fairly large, and they are less likely to get inside homes that are fortified against the elements. The species of kissing bug in the United States is also not the same as the species in Central America carrying the disease, but with warmer weather on the horizon, a suspected influx of the critters puts more families — and pets — at risk.

    Prevention of Chagas disease:

    • Good hygiene: T.cruzi can spread through contamination. The bugs which carry the parasite like to hide from daylight, spending their time in the folds of clothing, bedding, and in the dark areas of a home. Keeping linens clean, and washing the bugs off the skin is vital to infestation control
    • Bathe your pets: Dogs and cats can also carry Chagas disease. This makes their fur and bedding prime locations for kissing bugs to hide.
    • Home improvements: Kissing bugs are too large to fit through the average screen on a window. Homes that are most susceptible to infestation are those in a poor state of repair. Making small changes, like installing screens on windows and doors, can mean keeping the parasites at bay.
    • Insecticides: Just as a homeowner can spray for ants, there are insecticide sprays on the market for kissing bugs. Always use with caution around homes with pets and children.
    • Natural predators: There are animals out in nature that will eat kissing bugs. Snakes, lizards, and potato bugs are predators to the Chagas-carrying insects. Despite the all-natural appeal of using animals against animals, sometimes the snakes, lizards, and other predators can be just as much of a pest around the home.
    chagas disease

    One of the symptoms of Chagas disease is stomach ache. Also fever, swollen of one eye and enlarged liver. Mostly, Chagas disease does not present any symptoms though. (Shutterstock photo)

    There is little doubt Chagas disease is moving into the United States. Research involving kissing bugs in Arizona and California revealed 38 percent of the tested bugs had recently fed on human blood. Fifty percent of the specimens tested carried the parasite responsible for Chagas disease.

    • Could Chagas disease be the next HIV?

    A new report on Chagas disease from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas compares the disease to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, during the first few years of that epidemic.

    Both diseases are chronic, have a long incubation period, require prolonged treatment,  have no definite cure, and affect most the people living in poverty.

    “Stark similarities exist between today’s global Chagas disease epidemic and the first two decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” wrote the study authors. “This translates into a humanitarian catastrophe for the poorest people in the Americas and elsewhere. This perceptible health disparity demands urgent attention by global health policy makers to prioritize.”

    Though similar to HIV, Chagas disease is not sexually transmitted, nor does it affect the immune system. Instead, the kissing bug illness causes inflammation of the heart and digestive organs, and can cause irregular heartbeat or heart failure.

    Experts are pressing for a comprehensive prevention and control strategy including periodical blood screenings, outreach, intervention, education and more research.

    With homes more frequently being built in remote areas, and with unnaturally warm weather, Chagas disease is considered an emerging illness in the United States and should be watched carefully.

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