Is Chagas disease the 'new AIDS'?
A life-threatening parasite transmitted by a biting beetle can cause a person's heart and intestines to swell and burst — but early symptoms are hard to detect
A disease spread by parasitic bugs is being dubbed the "new AIDS of the Americas" by researchers because its initial symptoms are hard to detect. According to a lengthy editorial in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, Chagas disease is slowly — and surreptitiously — spreading to the U.S. from Latin America. Here, a concise guide to the stealthy illness:
What is Chagas?
Chagas disease has infected more than 300,000 people living in the United States and up to 8 million worldwide. It was once largely limited to Latin America, but now the illness is spreading north because of travel and immigration. Chagas is caused by a black wingless beetle called the Triatoma bug, which feeds on human blood and releases a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. The tiny 0.78 inch (20 mm) insect typically feeds near the lips of sleepers, earning the nickname "kissing bug." When the beetle is done feeding, it defecates, "pooping out copies of the parasite," says Maryn McKenna at Wired. A sleeping person scratches the itch and unknowingly smears the feces into the wound. "Voila, Chagas infection."
What are the symptoms?
The parasite has a long incubation period similar to HIV/AIDS, causing the disease to come in two phases: acute and severe. During the acute phase, victims can experience fever, general sickness, or swelling in one eye. Afterward the disease goes into remission — sometimes for several years — until victims one day begin experiencing constipation and digestive problems. This is the severe stage, and eventually causes a quarter of the Chagas disease sufferers to develop enlarged hearts or intestines, which can burst and cause sudden death.
Can it spread between humans?
Yes. The disease can spread human-to-human, especially through blood transfusions, if the blood isn't tested for the parasite.
Is Chagas disease curable?
If caught early enough, yes — though a typical treatment takes three months of harsh medication. The main problem, say researchers, is that the long incubation period makes symptoms difficult to detect. There's also a stigma attached that makes sufferers reluctant to seek medical help. It's commonly known in Latin America as "a disease of the poor," says Cassie Murdoch at Jezebel, "so there hasn't been much invested in finding new treatments."