Chagas' disease can cast a silent, lifelong shadow.
'Chagas is a potentially fatal parasitic disease most often found in Latin American immigrants. There had been little awareness of it in the U.S., but' it is slowly making its way into the United States. 'Chagas affects an estimated 300,000 people in this country and about 13 million worldwide, chiefly in Latin America, where it is a leading cause of heart failure.'
'Most carriers in the United States are immigrants who acquired the disease in impoverished areas of Bolivia, Mexico or Central America, where kissing bugs inhabit the cracks and crannies of homes. The bugs nip at faces and lips while people sleep, and drop feces laden with the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. The parasite can enter the open wound and circulate in the blood, attacking the heart, colon or esophagus.'
'The disease can trigger strokes and heart failure in people as young as 30. "Your heart just turns into a big, ineffective bag," said cardiologist Sheba Meymandi, director of a Chagas treatment program at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, the only one of its kind in the nation. About 1 in 100 Latin American immigrants whom the center tests has the disease.
Insects carrying the parasite live throughout the southern half of the U.S.,' but there has only been a handful of cases where the disease was contracted locally.
'Kissing bugs are suspected of having infected two Los Angeles high school students recently. Meymandi treated the 17-year-olds, who tested positive for Chagas after donating at school blood drives. Neither is of Latin American descent or has ever traveled to the region. But both spend time outdoors mountain biking or golfing, and Meymandi thinks they acquired the disease locally.'
'Experts agree that Chagas needs more attention, but a recent editorial in the Public Library of Science's journal Neglected Tropical Diseases sparked controversy by labeling Chagas "the new HIV/AIDS of the Americas." Peter Hotez, the paper's lead author and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston, noted that both are chronic diseases spread by blood, require toxic medications and disproportionately affect the poor.
But Chagas is not a virus and cannot be sexually transmitted. And there is little patient advocacy to draw attention and funding to the illness. "This is a forgotten disease among forgotten people," Hotez said.
Caryn Bern, a visiting global health expert at UC San Francisco, said the comparison to HIV is overblown and sensational. And Meymandi worries that the association will create additional stigma for immigrants with Chagas.
In the southern U.S., kissing bugs carrying the parasite can infect raccoons, dogs and, on occasion, people. The blood-borne disease also passes from mother to child in utero 5% to 10% of the time.'