Chagas disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis, is a potentially life-threatening illness caused by the protozoan parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi), mostly transmitted to humans by the feces of triatomine bugs, or “kissing bugs.” The disease is often found in Latin America and is named after the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, responsible for its discovery in 1909.
Who gets Chagas disease and how?
The trypanosoma cruzi parasite is the root cause of Chagas disease. Usually, the infection is acquired by contact with the feces of an infected triatomine bug, a blood-sucking insect that feeds on humans and animals. The disease can also by transmitted from mother-to-baby (congenital), contaminated blood products (transfusions), an organ transplanted from an infected donor, laboratory accident, or more rarely from contaminated food or drink.
Chagas is endemic through much of Mexico, Central America, and South America – it’s estimated that 8 million people are infected in those regions — but has also seen a rise in part of Texas and the Gulf states. The “kissing bug,” known by other names depending on the geographical area, prospers in accommodations affected by poverty, such as houses with mud walls or thatched roofs. That’s why in endemic countries, those who live in rural areas are at greatest risk for becoming infected.
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Chagas disease symptoms
There is both an acute and a chronic phase in Chagas disease epidemiology. If the infection is not properly treated, it can last for a lifetime.
Acute Chagas disease happens right after infection and may last up to a few weeks or months. During that time, parasites may be found in the circulating blood. Patients may experience fever or swelling near the inoculation site, where the parasite entered into the body. In some rare cases, acute Chagas can lead to extreme inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain, leading to serious, life-treatening conditions.
After the acute phase, most patients enter into a prolonged asymptomatic form of disease, during which few or no parasites are found in the blood. In this “chronic indeterminate” state, most people do not realize they are infected, and it is possible that they will remain asymptomatic for life, without further Chagas-related symptoms. Nonetheless, around 20-30% of infected people will develop medical problems over time, which can be debilitating and eventually life-threatening.
Treatment and prevention for Chagas disesase
Symptomatic treatment may be used for cardiac or gastrointestinal problems resulting from Chagas disease. It is advisable that patients consult their primary healthcare provider, as well as specialists, like a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, or an infectious disease specialist, in the event of contracting the disease.
In endemic areas in Latin America, prevention depends on improved housing conditions, for example, the use of domestic insecticide to eliminate the bugs helps to decrease the spread of Chagas disease. It is also crucial to test blood donations for Chagas and to detect and new cases of the disease as early as possible, to avoid congenital contagion.
As mentioned, Chagas disease is now found in areas that do not suffer from endemic, abject poverty-stricken conditions, in countries like the United States, Canada, and many others. In these regions, it is crucial to implement control strategies to prevent new cases infections through blood transfusion, organ transplantation, and mother-to-baby transmission.
Chagas Disease and Vaccine Research for the Disease in Texas
In a startling revelation from Baylor College of Medicine School of Tropical Medicine President Dr. Peter Hotez in April of 2013, there has been a palpable rise of Chagas disease in several regions in the United States, which is fast becoming a disease known as the “AIDS of the Americas,” due to its rapid rise. The disease is expected to cost $900 million to treat the disease in America alone.
In particular, Dr. Hotez and other leading vaccinologists in Texas have noted the rise of Chagas disease — as well as other so-called “Neglected Tropical Diseases” (NTDs) — throughout Texas, due to the higher rate of rural poverty, particularly in South Texas, as well as a warmer climate and more migratory population as a result of the shared border with Mexico.
Research is being conducted — led in large part by Dr. Hotez and the NTD-focused institutions he leads, such as the School of Tropical Diseases and the Sabin Vaccine Institute — in order to find a vaccine. Recent achievements also include the work of researchers at Sealy Center for Vaccine Development (University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Texas), who are getting closer to the development of vaccine candidate against Chagas disease.
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