Chagas disease, transmitted via the “kissing bug” or “cone-nose bug”, is claiming thousands of lives in Central and South America. Some call it the “new HIV/AIDS of the Americas.” Is this comparison accurate, and how big a threat is the disease to the U.S.?
Chagas is not a new disease. It’s named after Carlos Chagas (circa 1909), a Brazilian doctor who discovered that members of the Triatoma sub-family (most especially Triatoma dimidiata) carry a potentially lethal parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. After several of his patients developed a strange infection that he couldn’t identify, Chagas set out to investigate how humans come in contact with the pathogen and its effects on the body of its host. He probably didn’t realize at the time that his work was groundbreaking in the history of epidemiology (Chagas later went on to identify the parasitic fungal genus Pneumocystis, another major discovery).
Kissing bugs, named because they often bite the face and lips of humans (they’re also called assassin bugs), live in tropical climates near warm-blooded vertebrates to gain easy access to their blood. They stay hidden for much of the day, living in concealed places such as the cracks in a piece of wood and thatched roofs, and usually strike their victims as they sleep. The bugs defecate as they feed, allowing the parasite they carry to infect a new host.
The insects are indigenous to Texas and often found in homes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the early stage of Chagas occurs immediately after infection and may have mild or no symptoms at all. Symptoms generally include fever, malaise, and a swelling of one eye. If left untreated, the infection can continue for years, often with no further symptoms, and over time it damages the heart, intestines and esophagus. There are two known treatments for the disease but they only work when administered in the early stages of infection. Once organ tissue has been damaged, it’s usually too late.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, warns that the disease is spreading globally and there may be between 300,000 and 1 million cases in the U.S.