Chagas disease, a tropical illness that is transmitted by biting insects, may pose a major unseen threat to poor populations in the Americas and Europe, according to a report published May 29 in the journal PLoS.
The editorial, which was co-authored by several experts in tropical diseases from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, likens some aspects of the disease to that of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“Endemic Chagas disease has emerged as an important health disparity in the Americas,” the authors wrote. “As a result, we face a situation in both Latin America and the US that bears a resemblance to the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
Like AIDS, Chagas disease, which is already prevalent in Central and South America, “has a long incubation time and is hard or impossible to cure,” The New York Times reports.
The PLoS report found “a number of striking similarities between people living with Chagas disease and people… who contracted the [HIV/AIDS] in the first two decades of the… epidemic.” Among other similarities, the paper notes that both are chronic diseases that require prolonged treatment, and disproportionately affect those living in poverty.
To be clear, there are strong distinctions. Unlike HIV, a sexually transmitted disease, Chagas disease is caused by a parasite spread through bites from reduviid insects commonly known as kissing bugs. While HIV/AIDS attacks the body’s immune system, Chagas afflicts the heart and digestive organs.
According to the National Institutes of Health, complications from Chagas disease can include inflammation of the heart, esophagus and colon, as well as irregular heartbeat and heart failure. According to Nature magazine, some believe that the disease may have killed Charles Darwin.
Although the NIH states that it can “take more than 20 years from the original time of infection to develop heart or digestive problems,” the onset of symptoms can be catastrophic. According to The New York Times, one quarter of people that contract Chagas disease eventually develop enlarged organs that can potentially burst, causing sudden death.
The disease can also spread from mother to child and through blood transfusions, although blood banks in the United States have screened for it since 2007, according to the NIH.
While the disease is curable if it is caught early, the treatment is expensive and often stigmatizing, according to the PLoS paper. The disease already afflicts about 10 million people in Central and South America, and researchers are concerned that the disease could spread to the United States.
“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,” the PLoS paper states, “although other estimates suggest that there are approximately 300,000 cases in the U.S.”
Chagas Disease And Climate Change
In March, Science Daily reported that climate change may be a prime factor in the spread of Chagas disease and other tropical illnesses. In it, Patricia Dorn, an expert on Chagas disease and co-author of a paper on the disease that was published in the March 14 online edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases, said that warmer climates would “absolutely” push the carriers of the disease further north.
“We know the bugs are already across the bottom two-thirds of the U.S., so the bugs are here, the parasites are here. Very likely with climate change they will shift further north and the range of some species will extend,” Dorn told Science Daily.