Prevalent in Latin America, Chagas disease is a potentially life-threatening illness caused by the parasite T. cruzi
, which is most commonly transmitted through insects known as “kissing bugs.” The infection may trigger a chronic inflammatory disease in 30% of individuals. If left untreated, the disease usually impairs the heart and digestive system; it is a leading cause of heart disease in Latin America. In adults, the decline in health develops slowly, occurring 20-30 years after the initial infection.
Chagas disease is found mainly in endemic areas of 21 Latin American countries. About 6-7 million people worldwide are estimated to be infected. In pregnancy, however, the disease can be devastating; congenital infection with T. cruzi can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death. Though the disease was once entirely confined primarily to Latin America, the disease has now spread to other continents and cases have been reported in the U.S.
Because T. cruzi infection can persist in asymptomatic adults for many years, the parasite has contaminated the blood supply in many areas of Latin America. Therefore, blood screening is vital to prevent infectious through transfusion and organ transplantation.