Just when it seemed like all the super scary diseases had been discovered—flesh-eating bacteria, brain tapeworms, and, of course, HIV/AIDS, among many others—a new one comes along to bring fresh terror into our hearts. Introducing Chagas disease, which is caused by parasites that get into our bodies by way of blood-sucking insects. Ick. As for what it does, about one quarter of people who have it develop enlarged hearts or intestines which can eventually fail—or worse, burst—leading to death. Gaaah. Naturally, it's very difficult to treat and is normally only curable if caught early.
Several tropical disease specialists recently published an editorial in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases (sounds like a fun read) in which they called Chagas, "the new AIDS of the Americas." They say the way it's spreading throughout this hemisphere is similar to the way that AIDS spread early on, and the disease itself shares some characteristics with HIV/AIDS. For one thing, it's got a very long incubation period, and there's also the difficultly involved in curing it. Besides being transmitted by bugs, infection can be passed from mother to child and also by blood transfusion. It's estimated that there about eight million people in this hemisphere with Chagas. It's concentrated mostly in Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, and Central America. However there are more than 300,000 cases in the United States, and most of the people infected here are immigrants.
The doctors who penned the editorial said that part of the reason Chagas has been so difficult to control is that being infected carries a stigma so people are reluctant to seek medical help. This, of course, leads to further spread of the disease. For those who do seek treatment, it involves months worth of very harsh drugs. Fortunately, they're not as pricey as AIDS drugs, but they still tend to be in short supply in the poorer countries where they're most needed. Right now this is thought of as "a disease of the poor," so there hasn't been much invested in finding new treatments. But perhaps it would be wise if we started paying attention, since blood-sucking insects don't seem to distinguish much between socio-economic classes and are probably more than happy to spread this horrible disease as far and wide as they can.
Image via vetpathologist/Shutterstock.