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What is Chagas Disease?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 December 2017
  • Copyright Protected:
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Chagas Disease is a tropical parasitic infection which kills an estimated 50,000 people annually, with somewhere between eight and 11 million people living with Chagas Diease in the tropical regions of the world. This disease is concentrated in Latin America, although it has appeared in parts of Africa as well, and it has been regarded as a major problem since the 1960s, when the epidemic nature of Chagas disease in tropical regions began to be documented.

This disease is named for Doctor Carlos Chagas, the man who discovered it in 1909. Although Dr. Chagas did not fully understand how the disease was transmitted, he did manage to link it with insects, and he suggested that the risk of Chagas Disease was much higher in impoverished regions, where people lacked access to insect netting, clean environments, and other measures which could prevent infection.

The infection is caused by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, which is carried in the feces of several insect species. People contract Chagas Disease when they are exposed to the feces through insect bites, unclean living conditions, or contaminate food, and they can also get it from organ transplants. Chagas is sometimes known as American Sleeping Sickness or American Trypanosomiasis.

There are two stages to Chagas Disease. In the acute stage, the patient experiences an initial parasitic infection which lasts for one to three weeks, classically associated with swelling at the site where the parasite was introduced. Many people experience swelling eyelids, since the mucus membranes of the eyes are an ideal introduction site from the parasite's point of view.

In chronic Chagas Disease, which turns up in around 30% of cases several years to several decades later, the parasitic infection begins to take its tool on the body. The parasites damage the nerves of the body, and cause enlargement of organs such as the heart, colon, spleen, and esophagus. The damage results in a variety of health problems which eventually kill the patient.

There is no vaccine for Chagas Disease, and prevention is primarily focused on limiting contact with insects through the use of netting, insect sprays, and heavy garments. Once infected, antiparasitic medications can sometimes be very effective in the acute stage, but if a patient reaches the chronic stage, the focus is usually on treating the symptoms. Some of the treatments for Chagas Disease can be dangerous, and many are very expensive, making it difficult for low-income individuals in at-risk regions to get the treatment they need.

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