Chagas Disease Spreading in U.S., Europe

by Seth Augenstein

Chagas disease, which causes chronic heart disease in approximately a third of cases, has been spreading for decades in the United States. But it’s a silent epidemic: a majority of cases never develop any symptoms at all.

It’s now resulted in enough infections to prompt an official scientific statement from the American Heart Association.

Some 300,000 people in the United States are infected with the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi which causes the disease. But most doctors outside of Latin America, where the disease is most prevalent, are not generally aware of the infection and its connection to the deadly cardiac degeneration, according to the organization’s scientific statement in the journal Circulation.

“This statement aims to increase global awareness among physicians who manage patients with Chagas disease outside of traditionally endemic environments,” said Maria Carmo Pereira Nunes, a cardiologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, and co-chair of the committee that produced the statement.

Kissing bug. Photo: Shutterstock

Between 60 and 70 percent of the infected never show symptoms. But for a third of the unlucky ones, chronic heart disease, failure, strokes and arrhythmias, and heart attacks are all the end product of the parasite, according to the scientific literature.

The tropical disease is spread by bug bites. In the American South, this is primarily the kissing bug, a dime-size insect that bites a person about the mouth or eyes. An in-depth investigation by the Dallas Morning News and local TV station NBC 5 in 2015 looked at the prevalence of the disease – and how researchers from Texas A&M were asking for help from the public to better understand the epidemiology of the parasite spread.

In the Western Hemisphere, Chagas is responsible for more than seven times as many disability adjusted life-years lost as malaria.

A majority of the infections – between 60 and 90 percent – can be cured with interventions if caught early enough.

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