Recently, several news outlets have picked up a story calling Chagas Disease “the new AIDS” after an editorial published in Neglected Tropical Diseases made this claim. While this kind of rhetoric may be great for grabbing attention, it can be misleading to those not familiar with the disease.
Chagas disease is caused by a parasite carried inside of insects native to Latin and Central America. These insects carry the parasite in their feces. They tend to bite people near the face during the night and defecate near the bite site. When the person scratches the bite, they can cause the parasites to enter the wound. Chagas can be asymptomatic but may cause fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting. If the bite is recent, there may be swelling of the eyelids near the bite site. Chronic chagas can lead to cardiac and intestinal complications.
While the disease does have a similar epidemiological footprint to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, it is a very different disease. The diseases are both carried in the bloodstream, but Chagas is not spread from person to person and is not a sexually transmitted disease. HIV and Chagas are both considered incurable, however only 20% of those infected with chagas have life-threatening symptoms. Both diseases can enter a chronic stage causing recurrent illness which must be managed with prolonged treatment. Most of the similarities between the diseases are related to the infected populations. They are both more prevalent in impoverished communities where there is little access to healthcare.
There is overlap in the populations that these diseases effect; however there are no credible predictions of a chagas disease epidemic in the United States. According to Dr. Mark Ebell, physician, editor of several medical publications, and professor of epidemiology at The University of Georgia College of Public Health, “While Chagas Disease is an important public health problem in Central and South America, it remains very rare in the United States, and the blood supply has been screened for the disease since 2007.” It is important to take this into consideration when reading “shock value” headlines that do not tell the whole story.
For more info on Chagas Disease or any other disease, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.