Chagas disease is named after a Carlos Chagas, a Brazilian physician who discovered that the infection came from the Triatominae or “kissing bug.” These bugs contain a protozoan parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, which are single-celled organisms that are able to multiply in humans to survive, thus causing serious infections.
Chagas disease can be either acute or chronic. Those in the chronic stage can develop lifelong complications, such irregular heartbeats, swollen livers or spleens, diseased lymph nodes, cardiomyopathy, and irregular heartbeats. Chagas disease mainly affects those living in Mexico, Central, and South America. Although Trypanosoma cruzi can affect anyone who is bitten or comes into contact with the bug’s feces, those living in poorer communities typically are at a greater risk. Those with weak immune systems are also at risk for developing chronic Chagas.
Symptoms for acute Chagas disease can occur soon after a person is infected.
Skin or mucous membranes may be swollen or hot to the touch wherever the parasite entered. Fever and malaise are common symptoms, while inflammation of the brain or heart are rare occurrences for those in the acute phase of the infection.
If the disease isn’t treated, infected people may be asymptomatic after the acute phase and no parasites may be in their blood. However, a small percentage may enter the chronic stage of the disease and not even know they are sick. Symptoms can be heart complications, colon issues and difficulty passing stools, arrhythmia, and swollen organs.
Chagas Disease is caused in humans when they are infected by the parasite American trypanosoma cruzi (T cruzi). The insect that carries the parasite, the triatomine bug, is generally located in continental Latin America but has spread to other continents. Infection can be caused through several avenues. The primary route to infection occurs when the insect bites a human on exposed skin (it feeds on human blood), and then defecates near the site of the wound. The parasite lives in the fecal matter of the insect, and the parasite enters the blood stream of the human through the wound caused by the bite.
However, Chagas Disease can also be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her child during birth, consumption of food that is contaminated with waste from the triatomine insect, or blood transfusions from infected patients to other people. Chagas Disease can be very serious if not treated quickly. The parasite can reside in the muscles of the heart and can cause fatal heart conditions. It can also cause serious damage to the digestive system if left untreated.
Antimicrobial drugs, such as antiparasitics like Benznidazole or Nifurtimox can eradicate the disease if taken early. If a patient has entered into the chronic phase of the disease and has developed complications, then he or she may want to see a specialist, like a gastroenterologist or infectious diseases doctor. To avoid future infections, people should use insect repellent, cover their beds with nets, and use insecticides.
Prevention of Chagas Disease is possible and preferable to treatment. Spraying for the triatomine insect is one of the most effective preventive measures and is far less expensive than the course of treatment once people have been infected. Good hygiene, particularly around food preparation, can help prevent the spread of Chagas. Simple bed netting to protect from insect bites is also very effective in the prevention and spread of Chagas Disease. Screening of blood and organ donors is also indicated as the parasite can be transmitted from human to human through that route as well. There is no vaccine currently available, so elimination of or protection from the insects that carry the parasite offers the best prevention.