Chagas Disease is an infectious disease caused by the parasite – Trypanosoma cruzi. The disease was named after Carlos Chagas, a Brazilian doctor who first described it in 1909. It is also called American Trypanosomiasis. This is because the disease is endemic in Latin America.
I’m sure you have heard of African Trypanosomiasis, popularly known as “sleeping sickness”. Unlike Chagas disease, sleeping sickness is caused by Trypanosoma brucei, a parasite transmitted mainly by bites of infected tsetse flies.
Enough about African Trypanosomiasis. Let’s talk more about the disease of the day, shall we?
It is estimated that about 7 million people worldwide, mainly in Latin America, are infected with Chagas Disease. Furthermore, about 10,000 people die from the disease annually.
How is Chagas Disease Transmitted?
People can get infected in different ways. The most common way is through blood-sucking species of several insects called triatomine bugs. These insects live in crevices in walls and roofs of houses. Triatomine bugs feed on people’s blood at night when sleeping. They are sometimes called “kissing bugs” because they tend to bite people’s faces. While feeding, these bugs pass faeces that contain the parasite – Trypanosoma cruzi. These parasites then enter the body through the bite sites.
Other modes of infection include:
- Food contaminated with faeces of triatomine bugs
- Blood transfusion
- Organ transplant
- Mother-to-unborn child through the placenta
Signs and Symptoms of Chagas Disease
There are 2 phases of the disease – acute and chronic.In the acute phase, symptoms develop about 1-2 weeks after the bite. They are usually mild.
Some of them include the following:
- Skin swellings called chagoma
- Eyelid swelling called Romana sign
These symptoms may last for weeks to months. Although rare, the disease might be more severe in children or people with a poorly functioning immune system.
The chronic phase begins about 10 – 20 years after the initial infection. Many infected people do not have any symptoms. However, the heart and gastrointestinal tract (GIT) are usually affected.In the heart, there is an enlargement of its muscles leading to heart failure. When the GIT is affected, there is either enlargement of the oesophagus (the part of the gut that connects the mouth to the stomach) or the colon (the part of the gut that connects the small intestine to the anus). This causes difficulty in swallowing or passing faeces.
Diagnosis of Chagas Disease
This would begin with your doctor asking you questions about all the features discussed above. It is then followed by a thorough physical examination of your body. Blood samples are taken to visualize the parasites in your blood. Sometimes, tissue samples are taken for biopsy.
Treatment of Chagas Disease
This focuses on eliminating the parasite and treating the complications of the disease. Anti-parasitic drugs are given to eliminate the parasite from the body. Treating the complications depend on the organ affected and the extent of the damage.
In case of heart involvement, treatment involves medications and the insertion of pacemakers. For GIT complications, treatment includes drugs, diet changes, and possibly surgery.
Prevention and Control of Chagas Disease
There are no vaccines or drugs that can prevent the disease. Hence, minimizing contact with the kissing bug offers one of the best chances of controlling the disease. This can be achieved by:
- Insecticide spraying
- Improving housing standards
- Using bednets
Other methods of prevention include:
- Reducing contamination of food through good food hygiene practices
- Screening blood supplies and organs for donation
- Screening newborns at risk for early diagnosis and treatment.
A word from HealthFacts to you
Although uncommon in Sub-Saharan Africa, Chagas disease is globally relevant. Hence, you should have adequate information about it. Help others benefit by sharing this article with them.
Also, be reminded of the upcoming HF-Live Event. It’s happening tomorrow, 15th April 2023, by 5 pm WAT. I’d like you to read this if you are still undecided about coming.
Till next time, stay informed and stay healthy.