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Vector-borne diseases

Chagas disease

Chagas disease is a potentially life-threatening illness caused by the protozoan parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi).

It is mostly transmitted to humans by the faeces of triatomine bugs, also known as “kissing bugs”. Infected people can transmit the disease by blood or organ donation or from an infected mother to her newborn during pregnancy and childbirth.

About 7–8 million people are estimated to be infected worldwide, mostly in Latin America where Chagas disease is endemic. It has spread to other countries by migrants through transfusion or organ donation.

In most cases, symptoms are absent or mild, but can include fever, headache, enlarged lymph glands, pallour, muscle pain, difficulty in breathing, swelling and abdominal or chest pain. In less than 50% of people bitten by a triatomine bug, the characteristic first visible signs can be a skin lesion or a purplish swelling of the lids of one eye.

The disease can then become chronic, causing heart disorders and digestive and/or neurological problems. In later years, the infection can lead to sudden death or heart failure caused by progressive destruction of the heart muscle.

There is no vaccine for Chagas disease.

Treatment can be effective in killing the parasite if medication is given soon after infection.

Screening of blood and organ donors, as well as babies of infected mothers, prevents the spread of infection and enables early diagnosis and treatment.

Vector control, such as spraying of houses and use of bednets, is the most effective method of preventing Chagas disease in Latin America.