Chagas Disease – What is it?
You could say that Chagas Disease is one of those things that you didn’t hear about too often until more recent times. But even so, this is a serious condition, causing about 20,000 deaths each year. It’s more often found in Central and South America where it affects between 8 to 10 million people. Another 300 to 400,000 in the US and Spain are also affected. Chagas disease is transmitted by a nasty little bug called a Triatomine. These mean creatures come out at night and land on people’s faces while they are sleeping and help themselves to a belly full of blood. This has earned them the nickname of ‘kissing bugs.’ Once they are done feeding they usually poop on their victim which leaves parasites known as Trypanosomatids on or very close to the bite wound.
Of course the bite will itch, so when the poor unsuspecting victim scratches the area of the bite, the parasites will find their way into your body. They then attack the cells and multiply and are then released into the bloodstream. Infection can also occur through a blood transfusion, organ transplant or just eating contaminated fruit.
There are two different stages of the disease: acute and chronic. The acute phase starts as soon as you are infected and symptoms, including fever, generally feeling unwell, swelling around one eye or swelling at the site of the bite, can be very mild or there may be no symptoms at all. Once this initial phase has passed, after about two months, the disease goes into remission and you can remain infected, with no symptoms, for many years! Symptoms finally develop again when entering the chronic phase. These symptoms can include constipation, digestive problems, abdominal pain and difficulty swallowing. And these symptoms are evidence of more serious underlying conditions like irregular heartbeat, enlarged liver or spleen or weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) which can lead to heart failure. It can take up to 20 years from the time of the original infection to development of heart problems.
deforestationAt the moment there is no vaccine available for Chagas Disease, although research and testing is currently being carried out and there are some positive signs. So for now, in areas where the disease is common, the emphasis is on controlling the bug population with sprays, and making sure housing conditions are sanitary.
Although there is no vaccine, there are tests that can be done to establish whether you have the disease or not, and the FDA has recently approved two such tests. If you are infected, then drugs are available to treat the condition. If treated in the early stages, then Chagas Disease can be cured. So if you have even just a feeling you may be infected, then get yourself checked without delay while this thing can be cured.
There was a time when Chagas Disease was confined to areas of Latin America, but now that travel between countries is more commonplace, the disease is spreading to areas of the US and Canada and to many European countries as well. And the more jungle and forested areas are cleared to make room for urban sprawl, then the more these nasty bugs will search out humans for food as the animal population becomes scattered.