As the world continues to grapple with the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa, there's growing concern about another invasive disease whose origin is much closer to home.
Chagas – along with its cousins Dengue Fever and the Chikungunya virus – is a disease found mainly in Latin America, but is starting to gain a foothold in the U.S. Caused by a parasite inside triatomines, or "kissing bugs," Chagas causes fever, fatigue, body aches, headache and other symptoms in its early stages, while more severe symptoms such as cardiac arrest and megacolon emerge in its chronic phase.
While the disease is found mainly in poor, rural parts of Latin America – the U.S.’s Center for Disease Control estimates that 8 million people in the region live with the disease – isolated cases of Chagas have begun to crop up throughout the U.S. in places like Louisiana, Texas and Virginia. The CDC believes that there are currently 300,000 people infected with Chagas in the U.S., enough for a clinic devoted to diagnosing and treating the disease to open at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles and doctors in New York City and Georgia to start screening patients who have travelled to Latin America.
The disease is not classified by health officials as endemic, leaving many doctors to fail to diagnose Chagas or not think that people could contract the disease in the U.S. Medical research, however, suggests that 40,000 pregnant North American women may be infected with the disease at any given time, resulting in 2,000 congenital cases through mother-to-child transmission.
“It’s not something that we think of asking right away,” Julie-Ann Crewalk, a pediatrician who has handled Chagas cases, told The Atlantic. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were higher and we’re just not seeing it.”
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The U.S. is not the only country seeing new cases. Spain is now grappling with a rise in Changa cases because 80,000 migrants from Latin America are living with the illness, according to the BBC.
Chagas was named after Brazilian doctor Carlos Chagas who first described the disease – also known as as American trypanosomiasis - in 1909, while combating a malaria outbreak in a small town called Lassance. The disease is spread by bites or fecal matter deposited on the skin of a human by the triatomines, or "kissing bugs," called so because they tend to leave bites around the mouth.
The disease can also spread from congenital transmission - from a pregnant woman to her baby - by blood transfusion, organ transplantation, consumption of uncooked food contaminated with feces from infected bugs or accidental laboratory exposure.
Treatment of the disease is done through antiparasitic drugs to kill the parasite, but that can only be done if the Chagas is caught in its early stages. If it goes untreated past its acute stage, the Chagas can only be managed by patients with chronic cardiac or intestinal problems by devices like pacemakers and medications for irregular heartbeats.
Despite the 300,000 or so people living in the U.S. that have Chagas disease, the CDC and health experts in the U.S. say that most of these people suffering from the disease have immigrated to the country and the biggest risk of contracting this disease is traveling to areas where Chagas is endemic.