Also called American trypanosomiasis, Chagas disease is a zoonosis classified as a neglected tropical disease (NTD). It is caused by the flagellated protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi and is most commonly transmitted to animals and people through the feces of triatomine bugs. The triatomine bug is nicknamed the kissing bug because it frequently bites humans on the face or around the eyes; the insect often defecates near the bite and the infected fecal matter may be rubbed into the bite wound by the bitten individual. The bite itself is painless and, initially, many people show no signs of the disease. Alternative modes of transmission include contaminated blood transfusions, organ transplants from infected donors, and congenital transmission from mother to fetus.
Chagas disease is endemic throughout much of Mexico, Central America, and South America, where, according to WHO, an estimated 6 million to 7 million people are infected. Currently, Chagas disease is not endemic in the US, even though triatomine bugs are found in the southern half of the country.
Triatomine bugs typically are active at night, when they take blood meals by biting the faces and lips of people or animals as they sleep and often defecate near the site of the bite. Infection occurs when the host rubs the feces into their eyes, mouth, the bite wound, or another break in the skin. The protozoan then enters the blood and invades tissues of the heart and central nervous system, as well as macrophages and monocytes. Nonhuman reservoirs of T. cruzi parasites include wild animals and domesticated animals such as dogs and cats, which also act as reservoirs of the pathogen.
There are three phases of Chagas disease: acute, intermediate, and chronic. These phases can be either asymptomatic or life-threatening depending on the immunocompetence status of the patient.
In acute phase disease, symptoms include fever, headache, myalgia, rash, vomiting, diarrhea, and enlarged spleen, liver, and lymph nodes. In addition, a localized nodule called a chagoma may form at the portal of entry, and swelling of the eyelids or the side of the face, called Romaña’s sign, may occur near the bite wound. Symptoms of the acute phase may resolve spontaneously, but if untreated, the infection can persist in tissues, causing irreversible damage to the heart or brain. In rare cases, young children may die of myocarditis or meningoencephalitis during the acute phase of Chagas disease.
Following the acute phase is a prolonged intermediate phase during which few or no parasites are found in the blood and most people are asymptomatic. Many patients will remain asymptomatic for life; however, decades after exposure, an estimated 20%–30% of infected people will develop chronic disease that can be debilitating and sometimes life threatening. In the chronic phase, patients may develop painful swelling of the colon, leading to severe twisting, constipation, and bowel obstruction; painful swelling of the esophagus, leading to dysphagia and malnutrition; and flaccid cardiomegaly (enlargement of the heart), which can lead to heart failure and sudden death.
Diagnosis can be confirmed through several different tests, including direct microscopic observation of trypanosomes in the blood, IFA, EIAs, PCR, and culturing in artificial media. In endemic regions, xenodiagnoses may be used; this method involves allowing uninfected kissing bugs to feed on the patient and then examining their feces for the presence of T. cruzi.
The medications nifurtimox and benznidazole are effective treatments during the acute phase of Chagas disease. The efficacy of these drugs is much lower when the disease is in the chronic phase. Avoiding exposure to the pathogen through vector control is the most effective method of limiting this disease.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology