Roughly 8 million people across Latin America have Chagas disease, a potentially fatal disease caused by the American trypanosomiasis parasite, commonly known as the “kissing bug” as it typically bites humans around the mouth. In the past, the disease was generally contained to the affected Latin American communities; however, with the increased mobility to and from endemic areas*, the number of Chagas cases has grown in the US.
The CDC estimates 300,000 people in the US are currently infected. That number has prompted doctors in New York City and Georgia to begin screening travelers returning from those areas, and even a clinic specifically designed for diagnosing and treating the disease is set to open in Los Angeles. In fact, Chagas is one of 5 neglected parasitic infections (NPIs) targeted by the CDC as priorities for public health action.
As more is learned from the Ebola cases in the United States and the outbreak worldwide, those lessons could stimulate additional protocols related to these NPIs. And with the amount of money in lost work time and medical bills—$800 million each year—it is important to know the symptoms, risks, and prevention of the disease.
What are the symptoms?
An infected person may not show signs of having the disease, so it is important to take precautions when traveling to locations where the disease is endemic, especially if you’ve been bitten by insects. Symptoms present themselves in two phases. The first phase, called the acute phase, lasts for two months after infection. The symptoms for acute phase Chagas disease include:
- Enlarged lymph glands
- Muscle pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Abdominal or chest pain
The second phase, called the chronic phase, causes severe and sometimes life-threatening problems over a lifetime. Complications during chronic phase Chagas disease include:
- Heart rhythm abnormalities that can cause sudden death
- A dilated heart that doesn’t pump blood well
- A dilated esophagus or colon, leading to difficulties with eating or passing stool.
How is it transmitted?
The disease is mainly transmitted through contact with the feces of an infected kissing bug. After a person has been bitten by an infected bug that leaves feces in the broken skin, parasites enter the body. It can also be transmitted by:
- Congenital transmission (from pregnant mother to baby)
- Blood transfusion
- Organ transplant
- Consumption of uncooked food contaminated with the feces from infected bugs
- Accidental laboratory exposure
According to the CDC, Chagas disease is not transmitted through human-to-human contact or through casual contact with infected people or animals.
Who is at risk?
Outside of those people living in the areas where the disease is endemic, travelers to those areas have the greatest risk of contracting the disease, especially if staying in poor-quality housing where they are more likely to encounter the bug. Prior to travel, be sure to review the CDCs precautions regarding insects and those regarding food and water. Additionally, plan to speak with your doctor before traveling.
What is the treatment?
If caught early, the most effective treatment for Chagas is antiparasitic medication, which is only available through the CDC. Otherwise, symptomatic treatment is used to treat the chronic symptoms of the disease.
How can it be prevented?
There are currently no vaccines or medications to prevent a Chagas infection. If you plan to travel to rural areas of Latin America that may have Chagas disease, there are a number of ways you can reduce the risk of getting the disease if sleeping indoors in well-constructed facilities is not an option:
- Wear insect repellant
- Use bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticides
- Wear protective clothing
There are other ways in which government and healthcare professionals can help to control and reduce the transmission of the disease, including spraying infected areas with insecticides, screening blood donors and organ donors for the disease, and verifying good hygiene practices are used food preparation, transportation, storage, and consumption.
For more information on Chagas disease, visit www.cdc.gov/parasites/chagas or http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs340/en/. If you would like assistance in devising an incident management plan that will prepare employees for any crisis, including those related to health, please visit www.preparis.com or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guyana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela, and Uruguay