Médecins Sans Frontières has just launched a program to curb the spread of Chagas disease in the Nicaraguan district of Matagalpa, where 9.4% of school children between 7 and 14 have been found to be infected. Chagas disease is a form of sleeping sickness occurring only in the Americas. The parasite which causes the disease is spread to humans by blood-sucking bugs.
The disease mainly affects people living in conditions of extreme poverty, as basic and unhealthy housings (trodden earth floors, adobe walls, thatched roofs) form a favourable habitat for the disease-carrying insects. 70% of the half-million residents of Matagalpa district live in poverty, according to the UNDP (United Nations Development Program). Most of them work in the coffee plantations owned by a few rich local families.
The initial symptoms of Chagas disease do not appear to be severe - comparable to a mild cold. However the incubation period lasts for 10 years, during which the heart grows bigger and weaker, and other internal organs are also affected. Sufferers of Chagas disease are at significantly increased risk of sudden death due to heart failure, and suffer other health problems.
Two Médecins Sans Frontières international staff plus a local doctor and a local nurse have been working mainly on three issues: the screening of blood transfusions, mother-to-child transmission, and the regular monitoring of peoples' homes to check the spreading of the parasites.
Chagas represents a serious health problem in a region which is very poor and therefore doesn't have the means to tackle the problem alone. The MSF team will spread information to the local population about the gravity of the disease, the spread of the epidemic and how to reduce the risk of transmission. In addition, MSF also hopes to develop new strategies to eradicate this disease and stimulate the research for alternative treatments for sleeping sickness in general, with less dangerous side-effects.
According to Donatella Massai, MSF's operational co-ordinator for Latin America, "pharmaceutical companies and health authorities need to reduce the costs of diagnostics and insecticides in those countries where the disease is rampant".