Chagas disease—the third most common parasitic infection in the world—affects approximately 7.5 million people, mostly in Latin America. To help reduce outbreaks of this disease in their countries, the United States and Mexican governments should implement a range of programs as well as fund research for the development of Chagas vaccines and treatments, according to a new policy brief by tropical-disease and science policy experts at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
The paper, “Chagas Disease: Sharing the Burden and the Solutions in the United States and Mexico,” was co-authored by Kirstin Matthews, fellow in science and technology policy, and Jennifer Herricks, postdoctoral fellow in disease and poverty.
“Traditionally, Chagas disease is commonly believed to afflict only the poor in rural parts of Latin America,” Matthews said. “However, the migration of infected humans, animals and insects has brought the parasite causing the disease, T. cruzi, to other parts of the world, including the U.S. and Mexico. Through cross-border collaborations, the two countries’ governments can take steps to reduce the risk of Chagas disease by increasing awareness among health care providers and the community to protect their most vulnerable citizens, implementing control and surveillance programs and developing novel treatments for acute and chronic Chagas disease.”
T. cruzi is not normally transmitted from person to person but is spread through insects called triatomines, also known as “kissing bugs.” Kissing bugs spread Chagas disease directly to humans through their feces. The term “kissing bug” is used because the triatomine usually takes a blood meal from around the face when a person is asleep outside or in a housing structure that allows the bugs to get inside. As the bug feeds, it also defecates. When the person rubs the irritated spot, they unintentionally rub the bug’s feces, containing the parasite, into an open wound or into the eye. From there, the parasite can enter the bloodstream.
In the U.S., the impact of Chagas disease is greatest in California and Texas in terms of estimated numbers of cases. Despite the fact that many states are affected by Chagas, the disease is formally reportable in only three states: Texas, Arizona, and Tennessee.
To help those infected with T. cruzi, the U.S. and Mexico should fund initiatives directed toward new treatments for Chagas disease—at both the acute and chronic stages, according to the authors.
“Unfortunately, since the poor are the most likely to be affected by Chagas disease, there is not a great financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs,” Herricks said. “However, philanthropic organizations and government-funding agencies can help push for increased research, and new public-private partnerships with pharmaceutical companies can fund development to ensure treatments are accessible to vulnerable populations.”