Chagas disease is found almost exclusively in Latin America, although increased global travel and migration have led to more cases being reported in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. Chagas is a parasitic disease transmitted by triatomine bugs, which live in cracks in the walls and roofs of mud and straw housing. It can also be transmitted through blood transfusions or to the foetus during pregnancy, and, less frequently, through organ transplants.
Symptoms are rare in the first, acute stage of the disease and if they do appear they are mild. Then the chronic stage is asymptomatic for years. Ultimately, however, debilitating complications develop in approximately 30 per cent of people infected, shortening life expectancy by an average of 10 years. Heart complications such as heart failure, arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy are the most common cause of death in adults.
Diagnosis is complicated, requiring laboratory analysis of blood samples. There are currently only two medicines available to treat the disease: benznidazole and nifurtimox, which were both developed over 40 years ago.
The cure rate is almost 100 per cent in newborns and infants and in acute cases, but as the gap between the date of infection and the beginning of treatment lengthens, the cure rate declines.
The treatment currently used can be toxic and can take longer than two months to complete. Despite the clear need for more efficient and safer medication, there are few new drugs in development.
MSF has provided free diagnosis and treatment for Chagas disease sufferers since 1999. We currently have projects in Bolivia and Mexico.