Emiliana Rodriguez, a 42-year-old from Bolivia, vividly remembers the fear she experienced as a child when she learned about the silent killer known as Chagas. This deadly disease, spread by nocturnal insects, claims the lives of 12,000 people every year and infects up to 8 million individuals annually. Little did Rodriguez know that she herself would become a carrier of this “monster” disease.
Living with Chagas has been a constant battle for Rodriguez. She recalls how the terror often struck at night, leaving her sleepless with worry. The threat of falling asleep and never waking up haunted her. When she discovered that she was pregnant, the fear intensified. She remembered the stories her ancestors told her about sudden deaths and wondered what would happen to her baby.
Thankfully, Rodriguez received treatment to prevent the parasite from infecting her unborn child, and her baby girl tested negative for Chagas disease. Not everyone is as fortunate. Elvira Idalia Hernández Cuevas, a mother from Mexico, had never even heard of Chagas until her 18-year-old daughter was diagnosed with it. Idalia contracted the disease while donating blood, unaware of the danger.
Unfortunately, many people are still unaware of the risks these insects pose and the havoc they can wreak on our lives. Chagas disease, discovered in 1909 by Brazilian physician Carlos Ribeiro Justiniano Chagas, has spread its reach to the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceania over the past few decades.
Kissing bugs, also known as triatomine bugs, emerge from their hiding places at night, primarily in low-income homes in rural or suburban areas. These bugs feed on the blood of humans and animals, leaving behind their feces that contain the parasite. When the victim scratches the bitten area, the feces can enter the body, leading to infection.
The World Health Organization estimates that 6 to 7 million people worldwide have Chagas disease, with South America, Central America, and Mexico being the most affected regions. This silent killer takes a heavy toll, killing more people in Latin America than any other parasite-based disease, including malaria.
Sadly, in the United States, Chagas disease remains relatively unrecognized, despite nearly 300,000 reported cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that even those who do not show immediate symptoms can suffer from gastrointestinal or heart problems later in life.
The lack of awareness and low diagnosis rates, only about 10%, make treating and preventing Chagas a significant challenge. Many doctors are unfamiliar with the disease, resulting in misdiagnosis or delayed treatment. This was the case for Hernández and her daughter, who struggled to find accurate information and proper care.
Efforts to combat Chagas disease are hindered by the lack of effective treatments. The existing medications are toxic, unpleasant to take, and not consistently effective, especially when it comes to newborns. Pharmaceutical companies are not motivated to invest in developing better treatments due to the limited profitability.
Despite the obstacles, there are organizations and individuals working tirelessly to raise awareness and provide support. Professor David Moore, from the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, established the Chagas Hub to increase testing and treatment options, particularly for mother-to-child transmission. Hernández is also playing a vital role as the president of the International Federation of Associations of People Affected by Chagas Sickness (FINDECHAGAS), advocating for the development of more cures.
The fight against Chagas requires everyone’s attention. Rodriguez, now based in Spain, is collaborating with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health to educate the public about Chagas disease. She hopes to break the silence surrounding this “monster” and ensure that everyone receives the necessary testing and care.
April 14th has been designated as World Chagas Disease Day by the World Health Organization to raise global awareness. As part of their commitment to prevent, control, and eradicate neglected tropical diseases by 2030, they aim to tackle Chagas and other diseases that have long been ignored.
Prevention is key to stopping the spread of Chagas disease. The CDC recommends sealing cracks and openings in your home, keeping the area clean, and regularly checking for pests. If you come across a kissing bug, avoid killing it and instead, capture it in a container with rubbing alcohol or freeze it before taking it to a lab or health organization for identification.
We must join forces to eradicate Chagas and other neglected tropical diseases. Let’s spread the word about this silent threat and ensure that no one suffers in silence. Share this story and help raise awareness about Chagas disease!