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When small beetles cause major problems: The bite of these insects can lead to heart disease



A rare parasitic disease that can lead to heart failure or stroke is more common in the United States than many medical providers with an estimated 300,000 people.

Chagas disease is spread by an insect known as the Kissing Beetle. An estimated 8 million people in Central and South America are infected, but the disease has also been reported in several American states – Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Arizona and Massachusetts.

Most infected people will not develop any signs or symptoms, but about 30 percent of parasites may become chronically ill. In a new report, the American Heart Association urges physicians in the US to be aware that their patients are carrying this potentially dangerous infection.

Here's what you need to know about the disease.

What is Chagas disease?

Chagas disease is an infectious disease caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. The parasite spreads via the triatomin beetle, an insect that carries the parasite in its droppings, on humans and animals. It is also known as the kiss-bug, because it tends to bite people around the mouth or eyes, usually at night. Parasites then enter through the bite, rubbing or scratching.

The disease is most common in Central and South America, but has also been diagnosed in humans in the US, Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, the UK, Australia, and Japan.

In the US, the disease was reported mainly in southern states, but also in Massachusetts. Most people in the US with the disease were probably infected before they came to the country, according to the American Heart Association.

The parasite can hide in the body for decades.

How is Chagas disease spreading?

Most cases of Chagas occur after an insect bite. It can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her baby, and through blood transfusion, organ transplantation, consumption of uncooked food that is contaminated with the faeces of infected beetles or accidental laboratory exposure, the CDC said.

Chagas does not spread from person to person through normal contact with humans or animals.

Experts also say that it is safe for a mother suffering from Chagas' disease as long as she has no blood in breast milk or in broken nipples.

What are the signs, symptoms and long-term effects of Chagas disease on health?

First symptoms may be fever, fatigue, body aches, headache and rash. There may also be local swelling where the bite has passed and the parasite has invaded the body. These symptoms usually disappear in days to weeks. Rarely, small children may develop severe inflammation of the heart muscle or brain in the initial stages.

The chronic phase of the disease can occur in about 30 percent of infected people and include cardiac complications such as cardiac arrhythmia, cardiac muscle dysfunction, stroke, cardiac arrest or even sudden death.

About 70 percent of people do not develop any signs or symptoms and therefore the recent warning that asks doctors to adjust to the disease.

"Chagas disease causes early mortality and significant disability, which often occurs in the most productive population, young adults, leading to significant economic loss," said Maria Carmo Pereira Nunes, the doctor and co-chair of the committee that produces the statement by the American Heart Association in a written commentary on ABC News.

What is the treatment?

Chagas disease is treated with anti-trypanosomal medication (nifurtimox or benididazole), which is only available from CDC.

Who is at risk and how can risks be minimized?

Experts believe that most of the approximately 300,000 people living with Chagas disease in the United States had the infection prior to their arrival in the country.

For people living or traveling in severely affected countries, the World Health Organization recommends avoiding unpasteurized cane juice or acai fruit juice, which can be contaminated with parasitic insect excrement and shunts houses with exposed mud walls or thatched roofs.

Aditi Vyas, M.D. specializes in radiology, occupational and environmental medicine and is based in the ABC Medical Unit.


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