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Chagas disease is named after the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, who discovered it in 1909. It is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and people by insect vectors that are found only in the Americas (mainly, in rural areas of Latin America where poverty is widespread). Chagas disease (T. cruzi infection) is also referred to as American trypanosomiasis.
It is estimated that as many as 8 to 11 million people in Mexico, Central America, and South America have Chagas disease, most of whom do not know they are infected. If unrecognized and untreated, even silent infection is lifelong and can be life threatening.
Much of the clinical information about Chagas disease comes from experience with people who became infected as children through vectorborne transmission. The severity and course of infection might be different in people infected at other times of life, in other ways, or with different strains of the T. cruzi parasite.
There are two phases of Chagas disease: the acute phase and the chronic phase. Both phases can be symptom free or life threatening.
The acute phase lasts for the first few weeks or months of infection. It usually occurs unnoticed because it is symptom free or exhibits only mild symptoms and signs that are not unique to Chagas disease. The symptoms noted by the patient can include fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting. The signs on physical examination can include mild enlargement of the liver or spleen, swollen glands, and local swelling (a chagoma) where the parasite entered the body. The most recognized marker of acute Chagas disease is called Romaña's sign, which includes swelling of the eyelids on the side of the face near the bite wound or where the bug feces were deposited or accidentally rubbed into the eye. Even if symptoms develop during the acute phase, they usually fade away on their own, within a few weeks or months. Although the symptoms resolve, the infection, if untreated, persists. Rarely, young children (<5%) die from severe inflammation/infection of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or brain (meningoencephalitis). The acute phase also can be severe in people with weakened immune systems.
During the chronic phase, the infection may remain silent for decades or even for life. However, some people develop:
The average life-time risk of developing one or more of these complications is about 30%.
The diagnosis of Chagas disease can be made by observation of the parasite in a blood smear by microscopic examination. A thick and thin blood smear are made and stained for visualization of parasites. However, a blood smear works well only in the acute phase of infection when parasites are seen circulating in blood.
Diagnosis of chronic Chagas disease is made after consideration of the patient's clinical findings, as well as by the likelihood of being infected, such as having lived in an endemic country. Diagnosis is generally made by testing with at least two different serologic tests.
People can become infected in various ways. In Chagas-endemic areas, the main way is through vectorborne transmission. The insect vectors are called triatomine bugs. These blood-sucking bugs get infected by biting an infected animal or person. Once infected, the bugs pass T. cruzi parasites in their feces. The bugs are found in houses made from materials such as mud, adobe, straw, and palm thatch. During the day, the bugs hide in crevices in the walls and roofs. During the night, when the inhabitants are sleeping, the bugs emerge. Because they tend to feed on people's faces, triatomine bugs are also known as "kissing bugs." After they bite and ingest blood, they defecate on the person. The person can become infected if T. cruzi parasites in the bug feces enter the body through mucous membranes or breaks in the skin. The unsuspecting, sleeping person may accidentally scratch or rub the feces into the bite wound, eyes, or mouth.
People also can become infected through:
It is generally considered safe to breastfeed even if the mother has Chagas disease. However, if the mother has cracked nipples or blood in the breast milk, she should pump and discard the milk until the nipples heal and the bleeding resolves.
Chagas disease is not transmitted from person-to-person like a cold or the flu or through casual contact.
There are two approaches to therapy, both of which can be life saving:
Antiparasitic treatment is most effective early in the course of infection but is not limited to cases in the acute phase. In the United States, this type of treatment is available through CDC. Your health care provider can talk with CDC staff about whether and how you should be treated. Most people do not need to be hospitalized during treatment.
Symptomatic treatment may help people who have cardiac or intestinal problems from Chagas disease. For example, pacemakers and medications for irregular heartbeats may be life saving for some patients with chronic cardiac disease.