Helen Coster is a staff writer at Forbes; International Reporting Project. Below is an excerpt of her report on Chagas disease in Latin America, and how it can spread to the States:
By: Helen Coster
Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. could be infected with the deadly disease known as Chagas—and most of them dont know
The vinchuga bug, also known as the kissing bug, transmits Chagas disease. Image: Helen Coster. If Maira Gutierrez hadnt donated blood over a decade ago, she probably wouldnt know that she has Chagas, a parasitic disease that may one day stop her heart. The Los Angeles resident felt fine. Only her blood sample, which contained the diseases telltale antibodies, revealed that she was sick. Like many Chagas patients in the United States, Gutierrez probably contracted the disease as a child, when she was living in rural El Salvador. Today she suffers from heart palpitations and undergoes an annual echocardiogram and electrocardiogram to monitor the diseases progress. Its a relief to know what I have, where it came from, and what its doing to me, Gutierrez says. I know that Im not going to die tomorrow.
Chagas is caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi) that remains dormant in peoples bodies for up to 30 years, until it kills them suddenly by stopping their hearts or rupturing their intestines. Its a silent killer; patients rarely show symptoms or know that theyre infected. Worldwide, 18 million people have the disease. Chagas has been a scourge of the developing world for decades—particularly in poor Latin American countries, where a bug called the vinchuga, sometimes known as the kissing bug (because it bites people on their faces while they sleep), transmits the disease. But its increasingly becoming a U.S. health problem.
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