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Chagas Disease FAQ

Is Chagas Disease Really the 'AIDS of the Americas'?

How Is Chagas Disease Spread? continued...

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.

What Are the Symptoms of Chagas Disease?

People with acute-phase Chagas disease may not have any symptoms at all. Mild symptoms of acute Chagas disease are similar to other illnesses: fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting.

One unique sign of Chagas disease is called Romaña's sign: swelling of the eyelids and around the eye on the side of the face near the bite or where infected bug droppings have been rubbed into the eye.

But these acute-phase symptoms usually go away on their own even though the infection does not.

When chronic symptoms occur, they are the symptoms of severe heart disease or severe intestinal disease.

What Is the Treatment for Chagas Disease?

Children and adults under age 50 should be treated as soon as possible after infection with Chagas parasites. For adults 50 and older, treatment decisions should be individualized based on age, health, and personal preference.

Treated early enough, the disease can be cleared in most children and in about 80% of adults. Even when treatment does not totally eliminate the parasite, it can greatly reduce the odds of severe chronic disease.

There are only two drugs used to treat Chagas disease: nifurtimox and benznidazole. Neither of these drugs is approved by the FDA and, in the U.S., must be obtained by doctors through the CDC.

Treatment must continue for 60 to 90 days. Side effects, some of them severe, are common.

Some 9 million people worldwide have Chagas disease, with about 20% to 40% suffering from chronic disease. Both drugs used to treat the disease are in short supply. Even when they are available, the cost of treatment can be as high as $1,000 or more.

How Is Chagas Disease Prevented?

Prevention of Chagas disease focuses on spraying insecticide to kill off triatomine bugs, improved housing, and the use of bed nets.

Since 2007, most U.S. blood banks have tested donated blood for Chagas parasites, thus protecting the blood supply.

Pregnant women should not take either of the drugs used to treat Chagas disease. But prompt treatment of infected newborns almost always eliminates the parasite.

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