Chagas disease, an infection caused by a parasite that can lead to life-threatening heart complications, is on the rise in the US.
The deadly disease is well recognized in Latin America, but Chagas is now spreading to places where it isn’t traditionally seen, presenting new challenges for health care providers.
That’s the message of a new review just published by the American Heart Association (AHA). An estimated 6 million people are infected with Chagas in Central and South America. But the disease has become more common in other parts of the world over the last 40 years, now affecting some 300,000 people in the US alone.
The disease is usually spread by the “kissing bug,” which bites people’s faces while they sleep.
Chagas is typically spread by “kissing bugs” in the Triatominae family. These bugs contract a parasite called T. cruzi after biting an infected animal or human, and then shed the parasite in their feces. This fecal matter — and T. cruzi — can then wind up in the bloodstream of the next person the bug bites.
The insects typically hide in small crevices of walls and roofs, particularly in houses made of natural materials like mud or sand, according to the CDC. Here’s the worst part: The bugs tend to hide during the day and then emerge at night when people are sleeping to feast on their blood. They tend to bite people on the face, often near the eyes or mouth, which is why they are nicknamed “kissing bugs.”
Most people who get Chagas won’t have symptoms — but about one-third will develop heart disease.
Of the millions of people who have Chagas disease, most won’t have any symptoms or know they’re infected, according to the CDC.
In the early phase of infection, the symptoms of Chagas disease (if there are any) are mild and nonspecific, including fever, fatigue, rash, and body aches. The most notable symptom of Chagas is swelling of the eyelid from the bite of the kissing bug.
Over time, the disease can progress into a chronic phase that’s more difficult to recognize — but during this phase, the untreated infection can still lead to potentially fatal heart problems.
About one-third of people who become infected with Chagas will go on to develop chronic heart disease, according to the AHA. Other long-term complications include an enlarged heart, heart failure, arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, and an enlarged esophagus or colon. An estimated 10,000 people die from Chagas disease every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Early detection and treatment of Chagas disease is crucial, which is why the AHA is calling for increased awareness among health care providers.
When the infection is caught early, certain anti-parasitic medications can have a 60%–90% success rate, according to the AHA. However, a large number of patients may not get tested or diagnosed until they develop complications like heart disease.
The AHA notes that there is not enough awareness of Chagas outside endemic areas in Latin America. “Most US healthcare practitioners have limited awareness and knowledge of Chagas disease and thus are unlikely to screen those at risk,” the authors wrote in the new statement.
The risk of infection for travelers is low, but you can minimize your risk of Chagas by sleeping in air-conditioned buildings with plaster walls and avoiding drinking unpasteurized sugar cane or fruit juices, according to the AHA. If you have concerns about Chagas disease, talk to your health care provider.