Chagas Disease is Not HIV/AIDS

4 06 2012

I sat up in my chair when I read this headline last week:  Chagas Disease: “The New HIV/AIDS of the Americas.”

I remember the early days of HIV and AIDS. Anyone infected seemed guaranteed a horrible, painful death, and the typical reaction of too many friends and family members was to refuse to give a last embrace lest they, too, acquire the infection.

To say that Chagas disease is the new HIV/AIDS is quite a statement. Or at least, a startling headline.

Chagas disease comes from a parasite. The disease spreads when a big, bloodsucking insect known as a triatomine bug bites a person or animal infected with the parasite, then bites an uninfected person or animal.

The bugs come out at night and love to bite humans and critters on the face—hence the nickname (shudder) “kissing bug.”

The bugs bite, eat (remember the bloodsucking), and poop on the skin, and it’s the poop that harbors the parasite. The poop gets into the body through skin breaks or mucous membranes.

Infections can also occur through transplantation of infected organs or transfusion of infected blood, as well as ingesting infected bug poop piggybacking on uncooked foods. Also, it can be passed through vertical transmission, from mom to baby.

Chagas disease, according to the CDC and PubMed, appears in the acute phase as a mishmash of symptoms, making it hard to diagnose. And sometimes, there are no symptoms at all. If symptoms appear, they can include “. . . fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting.”

An exam might show a slightly enlarged spleen, liver or glands. A telltale sign, called Romaña’s sign, is a swollen eyelid where the bug bite occurred or the poop got onto the eye.

After several weeks or even months, the acute symptoms (if any) go away. If an antiparasitic treatment is used during this acute phase, there’s a good chance that it’ll be the end of the infection. Treatment is also occasionally successful later on in the disease.

If there is no treatment, the infection becomes chronic, but might never again cause problems. Or, it could flare up after several years or even decades and cause serious complications for the heart or intestines.

Death is sometimes the outcome in either the acute or chronic phase of this infection.

There’s no way to prevent infection, other than going after the bloodsucking bugs.

But, is Chagas disease the new HIV/AIDS? No, say Rick Tarleton, president of the Chagas Disease Foundation, and Dr. William Schaffner, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Champions of public health wrote the editorial with the eye-opening headline, which certainly brought attention to their case, but in this instance they went too far and made a claim that is more likely to raise alarm than awareness.

By Trish Parnell

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