Chagas disease is a condition primarily spread through insects. It occurs commonly in parts of South and Central America and is caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi). Like many other conditions, Chagas disease has its preventions and cures.
What is Chagas Disease?
Chagas disease is a vector-borne disease transmitted through bugs carrying the parasite. The infection is usually spread when a person scratches a bug bite, providing the parasites with an entry to the body.
According to research, T. cruzi could have been introduced to South America through bats nearly 7-10 million years ago. Another theory suggests that it may have infected wild animals approximately 9,000 years ago and eventually spread to domestic animals and humans.
Causes of Chagas Disease
T. cruzi is a parasite that is responsible for creating contagious sickness. Spread through the bite of reduviid bugs, this condition is a major health problem in many parts of South America.
Chagas disease is commonly transmitted in these scenarios:
- Residing in a region known to inhabit reduviid bugs
- Consuming food contaminated by T. cruzi
- Receiving blood transfusions or organ transplants from an infected person
- Transmission from an infected mother to her newborn
- Bio-hazardous accidents
Symptoms of Chagas Disease
Chagas disease occurs in two phases: acute and chronic. The acute phase shows mild to no symptoms at all. During the acute stage, parasites circulate in the blood and may cause mild symptoms like fever, swelling and redness in the eye or the site of the bug bite. Apart from these, the affected individual may experience an overall feeling of ill health. Distinct visible signs include the skin lesions or a purplish swelling of the eyelid.
Once the acute phase is over, the disease diminishes and the symptoms can vanish for years together. However, when the symptoms recur in the form of a chronic condition, they may include constipation, pain in abdomen and digestive problems, heart failure, palpitations and extreme difficulty in swallowing.
In the chronic phase, where the parasites are hidden mainly in the heart and digestive muscles, about 30 percent of patients suffer from cardiac disorders and up to 10 percent suffer from digestive and/or neurological alterations. If left uncared for, the infection can result in sudden death or heart failure due to progressive destruction of the heart muscles.
Diagnosis of Chagas Disease
When a person presents symptoms characterized by Chagas disease, the doctor may conduct physical examinations to confirm the symptoms like an enlarged liver and spleen, enlarged lymph nodes and irregular or rapid heartbeat.
The following tests may also be conducted:
- Blood culture
- Chest X-ray
- Electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Enzyme-linked immunoassay (ELISA)
- Blood tests to detect cause of infection
Treatment of Chagas Disease
The acute phase of the Chagas disease should be mandatorily treated, especially in infants carrying the disease since birth; any delay in medication may lead to slower healing.
Treating the chronic phase is recommended for both children and adults. Benznidazole and nifurtimox are commonly used medicines known to offer a cure if administered soon after the disease is detected. The drugs have been reported to have side effects, particularly in older people. These include headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia and skin rashes.
Nifurtimox is not recommended for people with neurological or psychiatric disorders, pregnant women and those with liver problems.
Control and Prevention
No known vaccine exists for Chagas disease, hence vector control is the most effective remediation step. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends maintenance of hygiene for prevention and control of disease.
The measures include spraying houses and surrounding areas with insecticides, use of bed nets, prevent vector infestation, and hygienic practices in food preparation, transportation, storage and consumption.
The WHO also emphasizes testing the blood of organ donors and receivers and also screening newborns for early diagnosis and treatment.
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Steverding, D. (2014, July 10). The history of Chagas disease. Retrieved from https://parasitesandvectors.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1756-3305-7-317
Teixeira, A. R., Hecht, M. M., Guimaro, M. C., Sousa, A. O., & Nitz, N. (2011, July). Pathogenesis of chagas’ disease: Parasite persistence and autoimmunity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21734249