SEATTLE — Chagas disease is a potentially life-threatening illness that affects between six and seven million people worldwide. The disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis, is caused by a protozoan parasite, trypanosoma cruzi. The parasite can infect people when they come into contact with the feces or urine of the triatomine bug, commonly known as the kissing bug.
The disease is most prevalent in continental Latin America, but is becoming more common in North America, parts of Europe and the Western Pacific. The infection is spreading due to the mobility of the Latin American population.
Chagas disease has two phases. The initial, acute phase lasts around two months after infection. Patients may or may not present with symptoms. A patient may have skin lesions, swelling of an eye lid, fever, headache or enlarged lymph glands.
In the chronic phase, the parasites move from the blood stream into the heart and digestive muscles. About 30 percent of patients have cardiac disorders and about 10 percent suffer from digestive disorders. Death can occur after many years due to cardiac damage and eventual heart failure.
While there is no available vaccine, there are two medications to treat Chagas disease. Both of these medications are most effective if administered immediately after infection. As time passes after infection, the drugs become less effective. And unfortunately, most people infected with Chagas disease are not aware because so many cases are symptom-less. Therefore, many people do not seek treatment during the acute phase when the drugs are most effective.
A potential way to reduce the impact of Chagas disease is to create a faster diagnosis method. Currently two rapid diagnostic tests are being studies in Belize. These tests do not require electricity or extensive training and the results can be read in one hour. Speeding up the diagnosis process will make it easier for people to begin treatment for Chagas disease.
An important way to prevent Chagas disease is through vector control. The triatomine bug naturally lives within caves but is also found within the walls and roofs or in cracks of homes in rural and suburban areas. People can protect their homes by spraying buildings with residual insecticides. As the bugs are most active at night people can also protect themselves with bed nets.
The World Health Organization is currently working on a variety of community solutions to prevent transmission. The WHO has found that education sessions in schools and sanitation projects are tremendously effective. In addition, the WHO also leads building projects to design homes less habitable for kissing bugs.
The disease is also e transmittable through blood and organ donations. Thankfully, universal screening for Chagas disease prior to blood transfusions and organ donations has greatly reduced the incidence of Chagas disease in Latin American countries.
– Sarah Denning