Americans at Risk of Chagas Disease

Untreated Chagas disease may lead to cardiac, digestive, or neurological problems.

A new study published by Clinical Infectious Disease indicates that many Americans, including those born in Latin America, have Chagas disease, which is a parasitic infection that can cause serious cardiovascular damage if left untreated. This infection accounts for a majority of incidences of heart failure in Latin America.

The CDC estimates that approximately 300,000 Americans are living with Chagas disease. The parasite Trypanosoma cruzi is spread through the bite of the triatomine bug, which is commonly found in the Americas. Approximately 30% of infected individuals will develop cardiac, digestive, or neurological issues.

"Less than 1% with the infection are receiving treatment for Chagas disease," said study author Sheba Meymandi, MD, director of the Center of Excellence for Chagas Disease (CECD) at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. "Without treatment, many Chagas patients are at risk of a ‘silent death’ due to heart failure. Our study demonstrates the need for similar research in other states, and underscores the critical importance of early detection and treatment to tackle this public health challenge in the US."

Included in the study were Latin American-born individuals living in Los Angeles, California. The study was performed by researchers from the CECD, which is the only center of excellence for the condition in the United States. This center also provides free screening to those in the Los Angeles area. Previous estimates about the burden of Chagas disease were based on prevalence in Latin American countries, immigration data, and data from US blood donations, the authors wrote.

Between April 2008 and April 2014, the CECD screened 4755 Los Angeles residents for Chagas disease at various health fairs. The authors discovered that 59 individuals (1.24%) tested positive for Chagas disease.

These findings suggest that approximately 30,000 Los Angeles residents have Chagas disease, which is in line with CDC estimates, according to the study.

"Although this study concentrated on Latin American-born residents of Los Angeles, Chagas disease has also been in the US for centuries," said researcher Colin Forsyth, PhD. "The bugs that transmit Chagas disease live in 27 states -- the whole southern half of the country, and we know they sometimes infect people, but we need further research to determine how often this takes place."

The only treatments known to kill the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite are benznidazole and nifurtimox. While both drugs have been around for more than 4 decades, neither has been approved by the FDA, according to the study.

Despite the lack of treatment options, thousands of individuals who have been infected with the parasite may be at risk of developing potentially fatal organ damage. The authors suggest that increasing access to these well-established drugs and creating new treatments will be crucial for combating Chagas disease, the study concluded.