What is Chagas disease?
"Chagas patients are of no interest to pharmaceutical companies; many people die without ever being diagnosed. We desperately need new drugs to treat people with Chagas."
- Silvia Moriana, coordinator of MSF's mission in Bolivia
A very small percentage of those who are infected by the insect that carries the parasite develop an immediate and potentially lethal reaction. Most carry the parasite for years without knowing it.
Approximately 30 percent of those infected develop chronic symptoms over a period of 5 to 20 years. As symptoms progress, one's quality of life is deeply impacted and ultimately those with the disease die prematurely of related problems. Even when common symptoms such as fatigue and stomach pain are identified, many people are misdiagnosed because of ignorance of the disease. Only a blood test can accurately diagnose Chagas and, in the absence of conclusive research, there is disagreement about the most appropriate test to conduct.
Approximately 50,000 people die from Chagas disease each year in Latin America, and 100 million are at risk of contracting it. Combating the disease is not easy: diagnosing it in the acute (first) phase is very difficult and treating it is extremely hard once it has reached the chronic phase.
Today there are only two medicines available to treat Chagas, nifurtimox and benznidazol, which are highly aggressive drugs with cure rates of 60 to 70 percent, at best. For chronic patients (those who have been infected more than 10 years) the cure rate drops below 50 percent, and the side effects are so severe that health professionals consider it unethical to treat them with these medicines.
The situation begs the question: Why, with so many individuals infected, are the diagnostic and treatment tools so poor? The answer is linked to the fact that the disease mainly affects the poorest, most marginalized people of Latin America.
Although Chagas is now starting to affect a broad range of people through unscreened blood transfusions and population migration, it mostly harms those living in rural areas where the vector, a common beetle, thrives. Because the pharmaceutical industry sees little profit to be gained, there has been no development of Chagas medicines for decades.