Chagas disease, which is on the rise in the United States, can cause heart failure, stroke, arrhythmia, and sudden death, the American Heart Association (AHA) and the Inter-American Society of Cardiology warned in a joint statement issued recently in the medical journal Circulation.
Left untreated, the infection is lifelong.
The disease is spread by triatomine, insects also known as “kissing bugs.”
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The insects become infected with a protozoan called Trypanosoma cruzi by feeding on an already-infected animal.
When the infected bug then bites someone and/or defecates on a human being, the person becomes infected as well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained.
In the case of disease spread via kissing bugs’ defecating on people, the excrement typically enters the bloodstream via the bite site, an open cut — or by rubbing the eyes.
The tropical disease was formerly thought to be limited to Central America and South America. However, current estimates of Chagas disease-infected residents in the United States are at 300,000 patients — and rising.
Infected patients may not even realize they are sick.
Some may experience a prolonged asymptomatic phase, but 20 to 30 percent of infected people develop debilitating and/or deadly medical problems as a result, as the CDC warned.
Cases of Chagas disease can be particularly severe for those with suppressed immune systems, such as people with AIDS, those on chemotherapy, or people who are taking immunosuppressant drugs (e.g., people who have received organ transplants).
Initial symptoms of Chagas disease, which affects 6 million to 7 million people worldwide, can include skin lesions or “purplish swelling of the lids of one eye,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Other acute phase symptoms listed by WHO are “fever, headache, enlarged lymph glands, pallor, muscle pain, difficulty in breathing, swelling, and abdominal or chest pain.”
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The chronic phase of the illness can include cardiac, digestive and neurological dysfunction.
Sudden death from the illness in later years can come as the result of the destruction of the heart muscle.
If treated quickly, the medication can be 100 percent effective. The longer treatment is delayed, however, the less effective the medicine will be.
Treatment for Chagas involves killing the parasite with medication such as benznidazole and nifurtimox. If treated quickly, it can be 100 percent effective. The longer treatment is delayed, however, the less effective the medicine will be.
WHO recommends treating confirmed cases, even if the patients are asymptomatic, as it can prevent progression of the disease and prevent pregnant women transferring the disease to unborn children.
Here’s more info about Chagas disease in this video:
Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette.