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Chagas: The New AIDS of the Americas?

Neglected tropical diseases are among the most common conditions afflicting the estimated 99 million people who live on less than US $2 per day in the Latin American and Caribbean region.

One of these tropical diseases, Chagas, infects more than 8 million people worldwide. While most of those infected are in Latin and Central America, as many as 300,000 live in the United States. Moreover, 20 percent of affected persons develop a life-threatening form of the disease such as Chagas cardiomyopathy, or other chronic manifestation such as dilation of the esophagus or colon.

Transmission & Symptoms: Chagas is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and people by insect vectors. The insect responsible bites its victims on the face. As it ingests the victim’s blood, it excretes the parasite in its infected waste. When the victim wakes up and scratches the site, the parasite can move into the eyes, mouth, or bite wound and the individual is then infected.  The disease can also be transmitted from mother to child or by blood transfusion.

About a quarter of its victims eventually will develop enlarged hearts or intestines, which can fail or burst, causing sudden death. Treatment involves harsh drugs taken for up to three months and works only if the disease is caught early.

Once heart symptoms start, which is the most dreaded complication—the Chagas cardiomyopathy—medicines no longer work very well; the medicines are also extremely toxic.

Why Chagas is similar to HIV/AIDS: Both diseases disproportionately affect people living in poverty, both are chronic conditions requiring prolonged, expensive treatment, and as with patients in the first two decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, most patients with Chagas disease do not have access to health care facilities.