Chagas Disease

Chagas Disease is caused By the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is spread by triatomine kissing bugs. There are many biotic factors that influence the risk of disease transmission, including the strain of the parasite, the vector movement patterns, the community of microbes interacting with the parasite inside the vector’s gut, and the availability of suitable vertebrate hosts. DNA from all of these species can be found in the gut of an infected bug, providing an opportunity to investigate all of them simultaneously by genetically analyzing this single tissue. In this study, we developed a DNA-based method to retrieve, separate, and analyze genetic information from the abdomens of 32 T. dimidiata kissing bug vectors collected across Central America. We found two distinct strains of T. cruzi, and four T. dimidiata genetic clusters associated with environmental and geographical characteristics. These populations harbored different bacterial gut communities that were augmented by specifically infection-associated bacteria when the vector was infected by the parasite. In some cases, we could identify what the insect had recently fed on, including chicken, duck, dog and human. Having simultaneous information on all of these organisms may help to fine-tune control strategies that influence the risk of T. cruzi transmission.

Much of the clinical information about Chagas disease comes from experience with people who became infected as children through vectorborne transmission. The severity and course of infection might be different in people infected at other times of life, in other ways, or with different strains of the T. cruzi parasite.

There are two phases of Chagas disease: the acute phase and the chronic phase. Both phases can be symptom free or life threatening.

The acute phase lasts for the first few weeks or months of infection. It usually occurs unnoticed because it is symptom free or exhibits only mild symptoms and signs that are not unique to Chagas disease. The symptoms noted by the patient can include fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, and rash. The signs on physical examination can include mild enlargement of the liver or spleen, swollen glands, and local swelling (a chagoma) where the parasite entered the body. The most recognized marker of acute Chagas disease is called Romaña’s sign, which includes swelling of the eyelids on the side of the face near the bite wound or where the bug feces were deposited or accidentally rubbed into the eye. Even if symptoms develop during the acute phase, they usually fade away on their own, within a few weeks or months. Although the symptoms resolve, if untreated the infection persists. Rarely, young children (<5%) die from severe inflammation/infection of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or brain (meningoencephalitis). The acute phase also can be severe in people with weakened immune systems.

During the chronic phase, the infection may remain silent for decades or even for life. However, some people develop: cardiac complications, which can include an enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy), heart failure, altered heart rate or rhythm, and cardiac arrest (sudden death); and/or intestinal complications, which can include an enlarged esophagus (megaesophagus) or colon (megacolon) and can lead to difficulties with eating or with passing stool.

The average life-time risk of developing one or more of these complications is about 30%.

You should discuss your concerns with your health care provider, who will examine you and ask you questions (for example, about your health and where you have lived). Chagas disease is diagnosed by blood tests. If you are found to have Chagas disease, you should have a heart tracing test (electrocardiogram), even if you feel fine. You might be referred to a specialist for more tests and for treatment.

If you have been diagnosed with Chagas disease, your doctor may perform an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to check for any problems with the electrical activity of your heart. Even if this test is normal, you still may need to be given antiparasitic medication used to treat Chagas disease. Your physician may wish to review CDC’s recommendations for  evaluation and treatment  for more information.

Treatment is most effective early in the course of infection but is not limited to cases in the acute phase. Your health care provider can talk with CDC staff about treatment options. Most people do not need to be hospitalized during treatment.

No drugs or vaccines for preventing infection are currently available. Travelers who sleep indoors, in well-constructed facilities (for example, air-conditioned or screened hotel rooms), are at low risk for exposure to infected triatomine bugs, which infest poor-quality dwellings and are most active at night. Preventive measures include spraying infested dwellings with residual-action insecticides, using bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticides, wearing protective clothing, and applying insect repellent to exposed skin. In addition, travelers should be aware of other possible routes of transmission, including bloodborne and foodborne.

Aejaz Iqbal is a  Microbiologist and can be reached at