Chagas Disease Has Made Its Way to North America

by pharmacy on November 1, 2017

Chagas DiseaseChagas Disease is a disease that has been prominent in Mexico, Central America, and South America and affects nearly 8 million people. Many of these people are not even aware that they have the disease. The CDC has reported that nearly 300,000 people in North America have been affected, and the disease has the potential to spread further. What is this disease and how is it treated? Here is some information to pass along to any of your pharmacy clients who may have recently traveled to Central or South America.

What Is Chagas Disease?

Chagas is spread through triatomine bug bites. They are bloodsuckers are known as “kissing bugs” and function a bit like our mosquitos. They typically hide in structures made of mud, thatch, straw, and adobe materials, which is why they are predominantly in Latin America. These bugs only come out at night and typically feed on a person’s face. Afterwards, they defecate, and if the defecation reaches mucous membranes or breaks in the skin, then infection occurs. Infection can spread from person to person in a variety of ways:

  • From mother to baby in utero
  • Blood transfusions
  • Organ transplantation

What Are the Symptoms?

Chagas Disease is either acute or chronic and may not show any symptoms at all or will be life-threatening. In the acute stage, symptoms are commonly mistaken for other illnesses. Those symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Body rash
  • Swelling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite

These symptoms will typically last a few weeks to a few months. If untreated, the disease will progress into a chronic stage. People with weakened immune symptoms will experience these symptoms on a severe level.

The chronic stage is more worrisome. You may or may not experience any symptoms and if you do, they will go dormant. The disease can live in your body for decades without any signs whatsoever. When they do manifest, they typically target the heart or the intestines. The heart may become enlarged, change in heart rate or rhythm, or the patient will suffer cardiac arrest. If the intestines are targeted, the patient may experience an enlarged esophagus or intestines and will find eating or passing stool extremely difficult.

How Can It Be Treated?

At this time, doctors must contact the CDC for assistance in treatment. Benznidazole is effective for early detection but it cannot reverse any damage to the heart or intestines if any damage has occurred. There is another option available that requires dosing at three times a day for three months. The CDC is slow to use this treatment as it’s highly toxic and will cause damage to the body that it’s trying to save. Neither drug option is FDA approved at this time but benznidazole is on the table to get approval from the FDA. Since many of the cases in North America are happening in the southeast, an approval means the doctors won’t have to go through the red tape with the CDC to treat patients.

Is There a Vaccine?

At this time, there is no vaccine for Chagas. To protect yourself from a possible infection, be sure to stay in a well-ventilated building that is made of concrete and use bed nets to protect yourself during sleep. Be sure all of your food is well cooked and use bug repellent liberally. Should you fall ill, seek medical help immediately.

While we are relatively safe from Chagas Disease, it is well worth it for all healthcare professionals including pharmacists to understand this illness in case we see an increase of kissing bugs in the US. Travelling to Latin America is so common that bringing back some kissing bugs or contracting the disease while visiting is incredibly easy.

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