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Chagas Disease: What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Latin America

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Man touching his sweaty forehead suspecting he has fever, one of the chagas disease symptoms.

Everyone enjoys traveling around the world. However, prior to traveling to new areas, it’s always a good idea to learn if there are any special health precautions you should take.
If you’re planning to travel to a rural part of Latin America, then this post is for you. Today we’ll share everything you need to know about Chagas disease, including:

  • What is Chagas Disease?
  • How does Chagas disease spread?
  • Where is Chagas disease commonly found?
  • Chagas disease’s most common symptoms
  • How Chagas disease is diagnosed and treated
  • How to prevent getting infected

Ready? Let’s go!

What Is Chagas Disease?

Chagas disease is an infectious condition. While there are highly effective treatments for Chagas disease, the illness can be life-threatening if left unaddressed.

Chagas disease is only found in the Americas. Especially in rural areas of Latin America.

However, Chagas disease doesn’t only affect Latin America, where insects spread the disease. Global population movements from rural to urban areas have increased the disease’s geographic distribution and changed its epidemiology.

Chagas disease is mainly spread through the infected droppings of triatomine bugs, and it’s caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. Triatomine bugs spread the disease to both animals and people.

Next, we’ll dive deeper into the most common cause of infection.

How Does Chagas Disease Spread?

Infection can occur in several ways. In areas with a high prevalence of Chagas disease, the illness is mostly transmitted by insects.

Triatomine bugs are Chagas disease’s insect vectors. These insects become infected after biting an infected person or animal. Once infected, these blood-sucking bugs pass the parasites through their feces.

Triatomine bugs are mainly found in houses built with materials such as:

  • Mud
  • Adobe
  • Straw
  • Palm thatch

In the daytime, the bugs hide in crevices in walls and roofs. They emerge in the middle of the night when the inhabitants are sleeping. As triatomine bugs tend to bite people’s faces, they are also known as “kissing bugs”.

After biting and ingesting a person’s blood, the bug excretes on them. If the parasites within the bug’s feces get into a person’s body, they can get infected. Parasites often enter the human body through mucous membranes or skin cracks.

Commonly, this happens when someone accidentally scratches or rubs kissing bug droppings into:

  • Wounds
  • Their eyes
  • Their mouth

Moreover, people can also get infected through:

  • Blood transfusions
  • Organ transplants
  • Congenital transmission (i.e: from a pregnant woman to their baby)
  • Eating uncooked food contaminated with triatomine bug feces
  • Accidental laboratory exposure

It’s fair to mention that, unlike the cold or the flu, Chagas is not transmitted from person to person.

Where Is Chagas Disease Most Commonly Found?

People infected with Chagas disease can be found all over the world. Nevertheless, kissing bug transmission only happens in the Americas.

Chagas disease is most prevalent in rural areas of:

  • South America
  • Central America
  • Mexico

However, Chagas disease insect-borne transmission doesn’t occur in the Caribbean (e.g.: Cuba or Puerto Rico).

Additionally, southern U.S. states have reported rare cases of Chagas disease transmitted by kissing bugs.

What Are the Symptoms of Chagas Disease?

Most of the information regarding Chagas disease is based on the experiences of people who contracted the disease through contact with triatomines as children. Nonetheless, an infection’s severity and course can vary depending on several factors, such as:

  • The age at which a person contracted the disease
  • How they got infected
  • The T.cruzi parasite strain

Moreover, there are two phases of infection: the acute and the chronic phase. It’s worth mentioning that both phases can be symptom-free or life-threatening.

Acute Phase

The acute phase lasts for the first few weeks or months of infection, and symptoms can range from none to mild.
Some common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rashes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Since these symptoms are similar to those of other illnesses, most people are unaware they have been infected with the T.cruzi parasite.

If a person doesn’t treat the infection with antiparasitic medication, even after developing mild to no symptoms in the acute phase, the infection will remain in the body.

The acute phase could be severe for young children and people with weakened immune systems.

Chronic Phase

During this phase, patients have no symptoms. The chronic phase can last for decades or even a lifetime. Approximately 20–30% of infected people develop:

  • Cardiac complications
  • Gastrointestinal complications

How Is Chagas Disease Diagnosed and Treated?

Chagas disease is diagnosed through blood tests. If you’re infected, even if you feel fine, you should have a heart tracing test (electrocardiogram) and you may be referred to a specialist for further diagnostic testing and treatment.
There are two therapeutic approaches. Both can be life-saving:

  • Antiparasitic treatment, which kills the parasite.
  • Symptomatic treatment, which manages symptoms.

Antiparasitic treatment is most effective in the early stages of an infection. However, it’s not limited to acute cases.

How Do You Prevent Getting Infected?

Currently, there are no drugs or vaccines available to prevent infection.

The best you can do to prevent getting infected is to:

  • Always sleep in well-constructed facilities (e.g: air-conditioned or screened hotel rooms)
  • Spray infested buildings with long-lasting insecticides
  • Use bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticides
  • Wear protective clothing
  • Apply insect repellent to exposed skin
  • Avoid consuming uncooked food

Key Takeaways

Exploring the world is an exciting experience. But as travelers, we must remain cautious to protect our health. Hence, we highly recommend that before heading anywhere, you conduct some previous research on local diseases and how to prevent them.

Planning your next adventure? No matter where you are, or what type of test you need, find COVID testing locations near you with our global directory.

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