Chagas Disease: The New HIV/AIDS?

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The Chagas disease, a disease spread by insects, is commonly known in South and Central America. In the areas, the disease has infected about 8-11 million people due to the poor living conditions the bugs thrive off of. It is estimated that, as a result of immigration and tourist travel, there are around 300,000 cases known of people in the United States having the Chagas Disease.

Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas discovered the disease in 1909. A parasitic bug, the Trypanosoma cruzi, is transmitted through infections caused by contact with the feces of infected triatomine bugs, or more commonly known as “Kissing Bugs.” The “Kissing Bugs” feed on the blood of animals and humans, similar to mosquitoes, and the infected feces they leave behind spreads into the blood stream through the bite wound of the victim.  Inside the body, parasites invade and multiply through binary fusion in the body’s blood cells.

The disease can also be spread through mother-to-baby, contaminated food, organ donations, contaminated blood contact, and blood transfusions. Once infected, the person can experience symptoms such as ill feeling, fever, and swelling of one eye. If left untreated the symptoms can lead to digestive issues, difficulty in swallowing, constipation, and pain in the abdomen. The disease can also cause damage to the heart and intestines where they enlarge to such an extreme size they explode. Around 20,000 people worldwide die each year as a result of contracting the Chagas disease. The disease is often not reported due to the lack of
knowledge of it.

 Public health concerns have risen over the disease after an editorial on the Chagas disease was recently published in the Public of Library Science (PLOS). The title of the article labels the disease as the “New HIV/AIDS of the Americas.”

“In practical terms, the “globalization” of Chagas translates to up to 1 million cases in the US alone, with an especially high burden of disease in Texas and along the Gulf coast, although other estimates suggest that there are approximately 300,000 cases in the US, in addition to thousands of cases documented in Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan.” (PLOS)

The article compares the disease to the early days when HIV and AIDS were first noticed. Both of the cases are chronic conditions and require treatment that can be too expensive for the patients. The diseases can also be transmitted through blood donations that are not screened and untested. Despite the constant screening performed by the American Red Cross of blood donations, there are some locations and organizations that do no require screening.

“Based on the assertions outlined above—the chronic morbidities and high mortalities, the prolonged and expensive treatment courses, the lack of therapeutic options, and barriers to access to essential medicines—a patient living with Chagas disease faces formidable challenges that resemble those faced by someone living with HIV/AIDS, especially the challenges that occurred in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.” (PLOS)

Both diseases can also lead problems of the disease being spread through pregnancy. However, the studies have also shown contrasts between the two diseases. The majority of the people who contract Chagas disease can live the rest of their lives with it, whereas those with HIV/AIDS can die without the proper treatment. In addition, the Chagas disease cannot be transmitted sexually, but can be transmitted orally through food contaminated with feces of the bugs.

The best way to be prepared for the disease is to be aware of the symptoms and have health agencies that do not neglect the problems faced by it.

Photos courtesy of CDC/World Health Organization via Wiki Commons.

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