Updated
November 12th, 2016

Southern Texas Battling Chagas Disease

Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis) is a parasitic infection that can lead to fatal cardiac disease

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Researchers believe that in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas the Chagas disease burden is much higher than previously thought.

Researchers estimate that about 4,600 people in the Río Grande Valley have Chagas disease. Additionally, about 1,300 (30%) of those people are at risk of developing cardiomyopathy.

Chagas disease (Trypanosoma cruzi infection) is a parasitic infection that can lead to fatal cardiac disease.

“We took an approach where we looked at many different aspects of transmission, not just people, but also the kissing bugs and animals, to get a full picture of what’s going on in the area,” said Dr. Kristy Murray, assistant professor of pediatric tropical medicine at Baylor, director of the laboratory for vector-borne and zoonotic diseases at Texas Children’s Hospital and senior author of the paper.

There is no vaccine for Chagas disease. In the U.S., medication for Chagas is available only through the CDC.

“There is clearly evidence of local transmission occurring,” said Murray.

"Kissing bugs", (triatominae) who feed on both humans and animals, are the vectors primarily responsible for the transmission of Chagas disease. It is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and people by insect vectors and is found only in the Americas, mainly, in rural areas of Latin America where poverty is widespread.

“We are now doing an investigation in a more in-depth manner,” said Dr. Melissa Nolan García, instructor of pediatrics at Baylor and first author of the paper. García also is with Texas Children’s Hospital.

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Vector control is the most effective method of prevention in Latin America. Blood screening is necessary to prevent infection through transfusion and organ transplantation.

Originally (more than 9000 years ago), T. cruzi only affected wild animals. It later spread to domestic animals and people. Chagas disease is named after the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, who discovered the disease in 1909.

The large reservoir of T. cruzi parasites in wild animals of the Americas means that the parasite cannot be eradicated. Instead, the control targets are elimination of the transmission and early health-care access for the infected and ill population.

In the United States, Chagas disease is considered one of the neglected parasitic infections (NPI), a group of five parasitic diseases that have been targeted by CDC for public health action.

In endemic areas of Mexico, Central America, and South America improved housing and spraying insecticide inside housing to eliminate triatomine bugs has significantly decreased the spread of Chagas disease.

Further, screening of blood donations for Chagas is another important public health tool in helping to prevent transfusion-acquired disease. Early detection and treatment of new cases, including mother-to-baby (congenital) cases, will also help reduce the burden of disease.

For cardiac or gastrointestinal problems resulting from Chagas disease, symptomatic treatment may be helpful. Patients should consult with their primary health care provider.

The Chagas disease is predominantly found in impoverished regions where substandard living conditions can lead to increased exposure to the parasitic kissing bugs.