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Chagas disease most important infection never heard about

May 31, 2012 2:35:46 PM PDT
There's new concern over a disease now affecting millions in Latin America-- it's called Chagas Disease. A recent editorial in a respected medical journal calls Chagas Disease "the new AIDS of the Americas." Dr Peter Hotez is the lead author.

"I like to call Chagas Disease arguably the most important infection you've never heard about," says Dr. Hotez

. Chagas Disease is a parasitic infection that's common in poor areas of Mexico, Central and South America. For most people it causes a mild flu-like illness. But it can remain dormant in the body for decades, and about 30% of the time, it can lead to intestinal and heart complications that are tough to treat.

"The problem is once the heart symptoms start, which is the most dreaded complication, the Chagas cardiomyopathy, the medicines no longer work very well," says Dr. Hotez.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci of the national institutes of health says Dr. Hotez and others are over-stating the danger of Chagas.

"I'm concerned that when people talk about comparisons with HIV," states Dr Fauci, "that that comparison would translate into thinking that it is transmitted like it is with HIV - which is just not the case."

The parasite that causes Chagas Disease is transmitted primarily by the bite of a reduviid insect. It's known as "the kissing bug" because it likes to bite around the mouth while you're sleeping. But how concerned do we need to be here in the US? Biologist Dr. Lori Stevens has studied Chagas Disease in the United States for the last decade, and spoke to us via Skype.

"We found that 40% of the bugs we looked at had fed on humans," said Dr. Stevens. "So this suggests to us that there may be more cases than previously thought."

But she says for now, the most concerning species of the insects are south of our country, but with global warming, they could make their way up to us

It's unlikely they're going to get to New York any time soon, says Dr. Stevens. But if people are aware then we have a better chance of controlling the situation and reducing the impact of it.

There's still a debate among how concerned we should be, but chagas diseease is now officially one of 5 parasitic diseases targeted by the CDC for public health action.

So we'll be hearing more about it.

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