The Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases journal published an alarming editorial in its May 2012 issue. The title of the piece is Chagas Disease: “The New HIV/AIDS of the Americas”. The authors examine the increasing number of Chagas cases in the United States and its potential effects on residents of both North and South America.
Chagas Disease: “The New HIV/AIDS of the Americas” points to ten million people in the Americas stricken with Chagas, and up to one million in the United States. Chagas is caused by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state that it is found only in the Western Hemisphere. The illness is spread by contact with the triatomine bug and a 2011 article in Clinical Microbiology Reviews finds that there are eleven triatomine species found in the United States.
The CDC reports that triatomine species capable of carrying Chagas have been found as far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania. In addition, immigrants from Central and South America can be infected before their arrival in the United States. Some New York State residents fall into that group so the illness is not unknown in the state. The growing proximity of the insect vector as its habitat continues to grow northward is also worrisome.
The triatomine bug takes blood by biting humans. It does not transmit Chagas through the bite, but by leaving its feces behind at the site of the bite. The feces is full of T. cruzi and rubbing or itching allows it to enter the blood stream. In addition, the illness can be transmitted through blood transfusions and to the child from a pregnant mother. Blood is screened in the U.S. for the illness.
Chagas disease has two stages, acute and chronic. The acute stage may not be noticed by the patient, as the National Institutes of Health point out. The illness then goes into remission only to re-emerge years later with serious effects. The CDC says that as many as thirty percent of Chagas patients will suffer serious or life threatening effects.
Chronic Chagas affects the heart. It can cause life threatening cardiac arrhythmias, dilated cardiomyopathy as well as have serious effects on the esophagus or colon. These abnormalities result in permanent disability or death.
Treatment options are limited for patients in the chronic stage of Chagas. In the acute stage, if the illness is diagnosed early on, a three month course of antibiotics may provide a cure. The CDC recommends that all patients receive treatment.