Medical: Chagas Disease

© Kenneth Tong

First described by the Brazilian doctor Carlos Chagas, this parasitic disease is found almost exclusively in Latin America, though increased global travel has led to cases being reported in the US and Europe. This potentially fatal condition damages the heart, nervous and digestive systems.

The disease is transmitted by blood-sucking insects that live in cracks in the walls and roofs of mud and straw housing, common in rural areas and poor urban slums in Latin America. People can be infected but show no chronic symptoms for years. Debilitating and possibly life-threatening chronic symptoms develop in approximately 30 per cent of people infected. Chagas can cause irreversible damage to the heart, oesophagus and colon, shortening life expectancy by an average of ten years. Heart failure is a common cause of death for adults with Chagas.

Treatment must be given in early acute stages of the infection, and so far drugs have been effective only in the acute and asymptomatic stage of the disease in children. Diagnosis is complicated: doctors need to perform two or three blood tests to determine whether a patient is infected with the parasite. There are few drugs developed to treat the disease and the current line of treatment can be toxic, taking one to two months to complete. Apart from managing symptoms, there has been no effective treatment for chronic Chagas in adults.

MSF Chagas programmes in Bolivia focus primarily on education, preventive measures and screening and treatment for children. MSF is now also attempting to treat adults through a project in Bolivia.