The Chagas disease, which is spread by kissing bugs and attacks a person’s heart, increases his or her risk of death even in its asymptomatic stages, according to a recent study published on Thursday. Chagas disease is on the rise in the United States, and it affects millions of people in Central and South America. The study, published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases on Thursday, strongly suggests that many more deaths than have previously been thought are linked with kissing bugs spreading the parasite that causes Chagas disease, through the parasites infecting the hearts of their victims.
CNN reported that the kissing bugs, given that nickname because the bugs bite people around their lips and faces as they are sleeping, spread the infectious parasite that causes Chagas disease by then defecating into the wounds from their bites. Their feces carry the infectious parasite, Trypanasoma cruzi, which travels through the bloodstream and eventually heads to a person’s heart, causing trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as Chagas disease.
Since deaths caused by Chagas disease happen over a period of several years, and the symptoms of it can appear to be nonexistent until a person dies, deaths from the disease have often been blamed on other factors or have been completely unrecognized. Also, Chagas disease can be a major contributing factor in deaths that have previously been attributed to other causes, like heart disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has “classified Chagas disease as one of the 17 most neglected diseases.” Even in people infected with Chagas disease who are asymptomatic, researchers have found that the risk of death of people infected with it “more than doubles.” Also, the researchers found that deaths resulting from the disease “have likely been under-reported in the past.”
With symptoms of the disease being mild or nonexistent in many people who contract Chargas disease from kissing bugs, it is little wonder, as AOL reported, that the disease was included in the WHO’s list of most neglected diseases. Doctors recognized that people dying of heart disease often also tested positive for Chagas disease, but they did not seem to draw a direct correlation or link between Chagas disease and deaths cause by heart disease until the recent study was published.
The lead researcher of the study on Chagas disease, Dr. Ligia Capuani, said that in every age category there was, people infected with Chagas disease “died more than people who didn’t have Chagas.” She stressed that getting treated for the disease at an early age is crucial for people who become infected with Chagas disease. That can be a problem, though, because many people do not realize they have the disease until it is detected when they try to donate blood.
The kissing bugs that spread Chagas disease are most prevalent in southern states, though they have been reported in 25 states so far. The study took into account data from over 8,500 people between the years 1996 and 2000 who donated blood to find out what percentage of them also tested positive for having Chagas disease.
The researchers, from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, compared the mortality rates of the people who donated blood and tasted positive and negative for Chagas disease and being infected with the parasite T. cruzi. The 8,500 subjects were followed over the course of 14 years.
The co-leader of the study, Dr. Ester Cerdeira Sabino, stated that in the group of the 8,500 who both tested postitive and died, the leading cause of death was “heart diseases.” Heart diseases are the most common symptom of a person infected with the parasite T. cruzi, spread by kissing bugs. Sabino said that in the group testing positive for Chagas disease, there was also “17 times the risk of cardio disease.”
According to Science Daily, 2,842 of the 8,500 subjects retroactively studied were Chagas-positive, while there were 5,684 Chagas-negative blood donors analyzed in the study. Even with the 159 people who tested postive and died during the years of the study, Chagas disease was not often listed as the cause of death in those that died of heart-related problems.
More research is needed to completely determine and understand the role of Chagas disease in being one of the main causes of people who develop heart disease and die from the condition. More research is also needed to develop “new therapeutic options with fewer side effects.”
The CDC estimates that in the United states, there are approximately “300,000 cases of Chagas.” Most of the cases were “contracted in other countries.” Symptoms can include fatigue, fever, swollen eyelids, diarrhea and rash. May people do not experience any symptoms, though, making it even more difficult to detect the disease until it has spread further, if then. According to the World Health Organization, globally, 6 million people are infected with Chagas disease.
According to Sabino, a main reason that the effect of Chagas disease has been underestimated is that many people do not even know they are infected with it, and the majority of those “who get infected carry on with their lives.” Even if a person is not aware he or she has been bitten by a kissing bug and has become infected with Chagas disease does not mean damage is not being done. The damage can, years later, result in a person being diagnosed with heart disease, and dying from it.
The parasite T. cruzi, spread by kissing bugs, attacks the hearts of its victims and has resulted in millions of people contracting Chagas disease and increased risk of death for the people infected with it. A study published on Thursday, in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, details the relationship between getting bitten by kissing bugs, becoming infected with Chagas disease, and dying from heart disease because the parasite destroys a person’s heart over years of time. while more research is needed, Chagas disease appears to be a much more deadly one than people had thought it was, even in people infected with it who do not appear to be suffering from any symptoms.
By John Samuels
Photo Courtesy CDC/James Gathany