Chagas, a potentially deadly disease that experts say is spreading like HIV once did in its earliest stages, has been labeled “the new AIDS of America” by a number of tropical disease experts in a recently published editorial.
The authors, writing in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Neglected Tropical Diseases journal online, said Chagas, which is caused by parasites transmitted to humans by blood-sucking insects, wrote that the disease is currently spreading through our hemisphere.
“It occurred to me one day how similar it is now with Chagas to the early years of the AIDS epidemic when they didn’t have good drugs or an understanding of the disease,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, told the Toronto Star.
The disease is also known as American trypanosomiasis, because the insects who transmit it carry single-cell parasites called trypanosomes. Experts say the best known relative is spread by the tsetse fly in Africa and causes sleeping sickness, which results in swelling of the brain.
Chagas infects 300,000 in the U.S.
The authors, several of whom are experts from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said that like AIDS, the incubation time for Chagas disease is long, and it is very hard to cure once a person contracts it.
It infects about 8 million people in the hemisphere but they mostly live in Bolivia, Mexico, Central America and Colombia. Still, about 300,000 people infected with Chagas live in the U.S. – many of whom are immigrants, The New York Times reported.
According to reports, Chagas can be transmitted to children by the mother, or it can be contracted through a blood transfusion. Some 25 percent of victims will develop an enlarged heart or intestines, which can then fail or burst, causing instant death.
Treatment isn’t much better; it involves very harsh medications that have to be taken for as long as three months. And they only work if the disease is caught early, which is a problem because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC), while acute Chagas disease occurs immediately after infection, it “may be mild or asymptomatic.”
“There may be fever or swelling around the site of inoculation (where the parasite entered into the skin or mucous membrane). Rarely, acute infection may result in severe inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain,” the CDC said on its Web site.
‘Forgotten disease among forgotten people’
While the drugs are not as expensive as AIDS medications, they are in short supply in poorer countries. And, because the disease tends to occur more in the poor, not much money is being spent on finding new treatments, much less a cure. The disease kills about 20,000 people a year.
“Both diseases are highly stigmatizing,” the editorial said.
The worst part may just be that few people know about Chagas, because not much is being said about it.
“It’s a forgotten disease among forgotten people,” Baylor’s Hotez said. “Can you imagine having 300,000 people in the suburbs with a serious case of heart disease caused by a bug? We wouldn’t tolerate it as a society, but because it’s happening to an indigenous people, we’re silent.”
Right now, Chagas kills about 20,000 people a year. But researchers and experts like Hotez are worried that figures could rise dramatically in the coming months and years.
The Star reported that Hotez and his staff “are working on developing a prototype vaccine that would be given after exposure to Chagas, like a rabies vaccine.”
J. D. Heyes
Sources for this article include: