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What is Chagas Disease?

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what-is-chagas-diseaseTropical Chagas Disease the "New HIV?"

There’s been a lot of news recently surrounding claims that Chagas disease could be the new AIDS epidemic in the Americas. A report published in the medical journal PLoS titled “The New HIV/AIDS of the Americas” pointed out the similarities between the early years of AIDS and what the situation with Chagas Disease looks like in Latin America, Central America and the US. However, for all the similarities the report points out there are also an abundance of differences. Here is what you need to know about Chagas Disease.

History of Chagas Disease

Although a lot of media is calling Chagas a “new” disease, it’s actually been prevalent and diagnosed for more than 100 years. Chagas disease is named for Dr. Carlos Chagas, who diagnosed Chagas disease after researching a mysterious disease affecting populations in Northern Brazil in the early 1900’s. Chagas found not only the cause of the disease but mapped its life cycle and learned the unique way Chagas disease is transmitted.

How Chagas Disease is Transmitted

Unlike HIV, Chagas disease isn’t transmitted sexually. Rather, Chagas disease is actually a parasite that can live in humans, called Trypanosoma Cruzi, which is carried by a bug known as a kissing bug. Kissing bugs live in warm, tropical climates and thrive mud walls and thatched roofs. When a kissing bug bites a human, it actually deposits a tiny bit of its feces near its bite. The parasite actually lives in the kissing bug’s feces and enters the bloodstream at the skin’s opening. The parasite can live in the blood for years before it actually becomes a problem and can cause heart failure and digestion problems.
Although transmission through kissing bug bites is the most common way Chagas disease is transmitted, there are a couple other ways people can get Chagas disease.

How Do You Get Chagas Disease?

  • If someone infected with Chagas disease gives blood to another person, the recipient of the blood can get Chagas disease.
  • Pregnant mothers can pass Chagas disease to their babies
  • Organ Transplants from someone with Chagas disease

Chagas Disease Symptoms

In the first stage of Chagas disease, a victim will start to see symptoms two months after initial infection, according to the World Health Organization. Symptoms can be headaches, fever, difficulty breathing, or purple swelling of an eyelid. The next stage is chronic and the parasites live inside the heart and digestive muscle which can eventually cause heart failure.

Treatment of Chagas Disease

There’s no vaccine for Chagas disease and the best way to control the disease is to control the populations of the bugs who spread it. However, if the infection is caught early enough it can be treated.

Spread of Chagas Disease

Chagas disease is most widespread in Central and Latin America but the PLoS report suggests that there are approximately 300,000 cases in the US. Chagas Disease in the United States is mostly limited to Texas and the southwest. Worldwide, the PLoS report states that one estimate puts 5.4 million people living today will develop Chagasic cardiomyopathy which can lead to eventual heart failure. The WHO estimates that 10 million people are currently infected with Chagas disease and 25 million people, predominantly in Central and Latin America, are at risk for the disease. 

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