Chagas disease is a parasitic disease of the tropics caused by a protozoa called Trypanosoma cruzi. T. cruzi is normally transmitted to humans, and certain invertebrates by a blood-sucking insect. The usual culprit is of the subfamily Triatominae (sometimes called the “kissing bug”). Chagas disease can also be spread by organ transplantation, blood transfusion, or the eating of food containing parasites. Occasionally it is spread from a mother to her fetus.
Approximately 10 million people are believed to be infected globally, mostly in certain parts of Latin America where it is endemic. However, it has also increasingly been found in the U.S., Canada, and some European countries. Over 25 million people are at risk of infection. In 2008, Chagas disease killed an estimated 10,000 people.
Chagas disease has a progression involving two distinct phases. During the first phase, a large number of parasites are circulating in the blood stream. Symptoms are not evident or mild during this phase which is termed “acute”. If symptoms are present, they may include headache, fever, muscle pain, difficulty breathing, and abdominal or chest pain.
During the second or “chronic” phase, the parasites are concentrated mainly in the heart and digestive tissue. As a result, approximately 30% of patients develop heart disorders and up to 10% develop neurological or digestive disorders or a combination of the two. If allowed to progress, the condition can lead to sudden death brought on by heart failure as a result of the continual destruction of heart muscle.
Two medicines are available with 100% effectiveness in killing the parasite: nifurtimox and benznidazole. The UNHCO has spearheaded efforts which have led to significant reductions in the transmission of Chagas and is currently helping promote screening and diagnostic tests in affected regions.