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Chagas in US: Rise of the 'kissing bug' disease, doctors fear the worst (Update)

Given the alarming number of Chagas cases in the US, doctors and medical experts fear the worst because the "kissing bug" can cause life-threatening medical problems. Although health experts indicate that the bug is endemic to Latin America, the disease is gaining traction among immigrants in the US. According to a July 28 News Max report, about 8 million people have Chagas disease in Mexico and Central and South America -- and most are already in the chronic phase, when organs such as heart and esophagus begin to inflame and swell.

Chagas Disease a Potential Pandemic

The problem with Chagas is that 40% of patients discontinue treatment within the first ten days as benznidazole, one of only two drugs used against the disease, causes many side effects. Furthermore, in the United States, these drugs are not FDA approved and are available only from CDC under investigational protocols.

In the initial phase, Chagas disease has symptoms such as fever and malaise, which makes it easily confused with simple ailments. If it is not treated properly, the patient can develop chronic phase where up to 30% of patients suffer from cardiac disorders and up to 10% suffer from digestive, neurological or mixed alterations. In later years the infection can lead to sudden death or heart failure caused by progressive destruction of the heart muscle, according to the World Health Organization .

Doctors are especially concerned because the only two drugs used to treat infection (nifurtimox and benznidazole) are not very effective in chronic phase and also cause many side effects such as nausea, stomach pain, and dizziness. The result is that about 40% of patients drop out of treatment early.

Many people in the US have never even heard of Chagas."It's a disease many people in this country have never heard of," says Rachel Cohen, regional executive director of Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative North America.

People can become infected in various ways. In Chagas disease-endemic areas, the main way is through vectorborne transmission. The insect vectors are called triatomine bugs. These blood-sucking bugs get infected by biting an infected animal or person. Once infected, the bugs pass T. cruzi parasites in their feces, CDC wrote.

"Sometimes the first indication of Chagas disease can be a stroke or sudden collapse or sudden death. It is a stealth disease in some ways because people are infected, not knowing they're infected, and years later they can have problems with their heart," she says.

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