Chagas Disease

Traditional thatched house in Guatemala

Kissing Bugs

By Victoria Fenner

There’s a silent killer living in the walls of traditional adobe homes in Central America and South America. You can’t see it, you can’t hear it. It sneaks out at night and crawls into people’s beds. People often don’t know of its visit until twenty or thirty years later.

This quiet killer is known as The Kissing Bug. It’s a misnomer. These bugs don’t kiss, they bite. And when they bite, they transmit a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, a protozoan contained in the bug’s excrement. When a person is bit, the natural inclination is to scratch the bite. That’s the worst thing to do, because the protozoan then gets into the bloodstream. It causes a disease called Chagas disease.

An infected person can become feverish, but it often doesn’t look more serious than the flu. And if it’s not treated, it can show up twenty or thirty years later. It’s a debilitating, degenerative disease attacking the heart and colon. It’s a chronic illness at this point, weakening a person to the point where they can’t work or function normally. Eventually, their heart gives out and they die. People who spend a lot of time in bed .. babies for example .. are especially vulnerable.

There isn’t a vaccine to prevent Chagas disease, but there is a very simple way to prevent it. Those traditional thatched adobe houses provide a comfortable home to the bugs that carry the disease. They live in cracks in the walls and in the thatched roofs. A lot of the efforts to reduce Chagas disease focus on building better houses. Adobe houses may be picturesque, but cement block houses are safer.

The International Development Research Centre in Ottawa has been working with the University of Guatemala on an ecohealth approach to fight the disease. Ecohealth is about solving health problems by creating changes in lifestyle, influencing policy and educating people about disease prevention. ” These projects would not work well if we didn`t have teams of multiple disciplines” explains Arlyne Beeche, a Chagas disease expert with the IDRC. ” In order to get the community involved, we support teams of sociologists, anthropologists .. people who are able to help biologists and parasitologists understand why people make the decisions that they do.”

The solution seems simple — tell people to fill the cracks in their houses with cement. But it’s not that easy, Arlyne cautions. For example, it’s not that easy for people in remote mountain villages to get the materials they need. In Guatemala, it was only possible because the government agreed to provide the materials.

Helping people improve their health in distant lands is a laudable goal in itself. For people in Canada, there’s another good reason. The bug which causes Chagas disease can’t live in Canada’s cold climate, but it can still hurt us here. It’s transmitted through blood in the same way that diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C is spread.

Canadian Blood Services just started testing for Chagas this month (May 2010). That’s one solution .. preventing the spread at its source is even better.

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