What Is Chagas Disease?
Chagas disease is caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. The parasites multiply within cells of the body. Infected cells burst, releasing parasites into the bloodstream.
Chagas disease was first recognized in the modern era by Brazilian doctor Carlos Chagas in 1909. But the disease has been around for 9,000 years. Chagas parasites have been found in the remains of mummies from the ancient Chinchorro culture of South America. The most common complication of chronic Chagas disease is a heart condition called chronic Chagas cardiopathy. These complications include enlarged heart, heart failure, severely altered heart rhythm, and heart attack.
Some patients with chronic Chagas disease get intestinal complications. These may include enlarged esophagus (causing difficulty swallowing) or enlarged colon (causing difficulty passing stool).
How Is Chagas Disease Spread?
There are several ways Chagas disease is spread.
The most common way is through the bite of a family of blood-sucking insects called triatomes. They’re better known as kissing bugs, assassin bugs, cone-nosed bugs, and reduviid bugs.
Inside houses, the most common places to find the bugs are near pet resting areas (a good reason not to sleep with your pets), in areas infested by rodents, and in or around beds (particularly under mattresses or bedside tables).
These bugs usually come out at night. They feed on the blood of humans and other mammals, birds, and reptiles. The bugs are attracted to the lips — hence the nickname “kissing bug” — although bites may occur on other parts of the body.
The bug bite itself doesn’t spread Chagas parasites. But while feeding, bug droppings are left near the wound. When these droppings get into the wound or mucous membranes (as when a person touches the droppings and then rubs his or her eye), the parasites enter the body.
Chagas can also be spread:
- By getting a blood transfusion or organ transplant from an infected person.
- By eating undercooked foods contaminated with infected bugs or their droppings.
- By eating undercooked game infected with Chagas parasites.
- From mother to child during pregnancy or during breastfeeding.
- In laboratory accidents.
In South America, people have been infected with Chagas parasites through contaminated cane juice, acai juice, guava juice, and palm wine.
While the burden of Chagas disease falls mainly on people in Central and South America, the disease is spreading worldwide. Cases have been seen in Japan and Western Europe. And Chagas is becoming more of a problem in the Southern U.S., particularly in Texas and the Gulf Coast.