These bugs come out at nighttime, and attacking victims, they silently kill or leave them with a lifelong infection

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Emiliana Rodriguez has a vivid memory of watching her friends play a late-night soccer game when tragedy struck. As a young child, she was shocked to see one of the players suddenly pass away on the field.

Rodrguez, who was born in Bolivia, started to feel afraid of the night without understanding why. She had been told about a dangerous creature that only appears at night, a silent killer called Chagas.

Chagas, a unique type of monster, is referred to as the “silent and silenced disease.” It is transmitted by nocturnal insects and impacts around 8 million individuals every year, resulting in an average of 12,000 deaths.

Emiliana Rodriguez, 42, moved to Barcelona from Bolivia 27 years ago and discovered she couldn’t escape Chagas, which she calls a “monster.”

She mentioned that the fear often arrived during the night. Occasionally, she couldn’t sleep. She was scared of falling asleep and never waking up.

When Rodriguez was eight years old and pregnant with her first child, she took some tests that revealed she had Chagas disease. “I was completely shocked and remembered all the stories my family had told me about people dying suddenly,” she said, also recalling the death of her friend. “I wondered, ‘What will happen to my baby?'”

Rodriguez was given medication to prevent the parasite from passing to her unborn child. She tested negative after giving birth to her daughter. Elvira Idalia Hernández Cuevas had never heard of Chagas when her 18-year-old was diagnosed with it in Mexico.

Idalia, who is 18 years old, was giving blood in her hometown near Veracruz, Mexico. Her blood sample was analyzed and it revealed a positive diagnosis for Chagas disease. This condition is caused by triatomine bugs, which are also known as kissing or vampire bugs and blood-sucking parasites.

Hernández mentioned in an interview with the Guardian that he had never heard of Chagas, so he decided to look it up online. He was scared when he read that it was called a silent killer and felt lost about what to do next.

Many people are unaware of the diseases caused by these annoying bugs. Carlos Ribeiro Justiniano Chagas, a Brazilian doctor and researcher, discovered the first human case in 1909, which is why the disease is named after him.

Chagas disease has been recorded in Latin America, North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia in recent decades.

Kissing bugs are commonly found in the walls of affordable housing in rural or suburban regions. They tend to be most active during the night when people are asleep. These bugs transmit the T. cruzi infection by biting animals or humans and then defecating on their skin. If the victim accidentally scratches the affected area, it can lead to a break in the skin or the feces can be spread to the eyes or mouth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that in Mexico, Central America, and South America, around 8 million individuals, or 6 to 7 million worldwide according to the World Health Organization (WHO), have Chagas disease. Unfortunately, most of them are unaware of their infection. If left untreated, this lifelong infection can be fatal. The Guardian reports that Chagas disease claims the lives of approximately 12,000 people annually, surpassing any other parasite disease, including malaria, in Latin America.

Despite the fact that close to 300,000 people in the U.S. have been infected, these bugs are not considered endemic.

CDC reports that even though some individuals may not experience any symptoms initially, 20 to 30% of them may develop cardiac complications that can be fatal or gastrointestinal complications that can cause significant discomfort many years later.

The treatment and prevention of the disease are very challenging due to the low global case detection rate of only 10%.

Hernández and her daughter Idalia sought help from multiple doctors who had limited knowledge about Chagas disease. Hernández felt shocked, frightened, and upset, fearing for her daughter’s life. She struggled to find trustworthy information, which only increased her worry.

With the assistance of a relative employed in the healthcare field, Idalia finally obtained the necessary treatment.

Hernández states that in Mexico, the officials claim that only a few individuals are impacted by Chagas and that it is well-managed. However, the reality is different. Medical practitioners lack proper training and often confuse Chagas with other heart conditions. Most of them are unaware that Chagas exists in Mexico.

Chagas is classified as a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization (WHO), indicating that it is not receiving attention from the global health policy agenda.

Colin Forsyth, a research manager at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), stated that Chagas is often overlooked because it is a silent disease that remains hidden in the body for a long time due to the lack of symptoms in the early stages of infection.

Forsyth pointed out that the poor populations lack the influence to shape healthcare policy due to a combination of biological and social factors that contribute to its obscurity.

However, as Chagas continues to spread to different continents, it is increasingly recognized that it can be transmitted through organ and blood transplants, as well as from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth.

Professor David Moore, an expert at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, established the Chagas Hub, a facility located in the UK. Its main objective is to increase the number of individuals being tested and treated, as well as to effectively handle the risk of transmission, which primarily occurs from mother to child in the UK.

Moore mentioned that the progress in eradicating Chagas is very slow. He also expressed doubt about reaching the WHO’s goal of eliminating the disease by 2030, saying it is highly unlikely.

Chagas can be managed with two drugs, benznidazole and nifurtimox, both available for over 50 years, which Moore describes as “toxic, unpleasant, and not very effective.”

There is no guarantee that the medication will prevent or decelerate the disease’s development in adults, although it can cure a child.

Rodrguez remembers getting hives and feeling sick from serious side effects. She completed her treatment and now has annual check-ups.

Moore emphasizes the importance of creating stronger Chagas drugs to stop the disease from spreading. However, pharmaceutical companies currently lack the financial motivation to develop them.

Hernández, as the president of FINDECHAGAS, is dedicated to raising awareness about the silent disease. She will continue her mission until there is a higher demand for new treatments.

Rodriguez is battling the “monster” in Spain, as the Barcelona Institute for Global Health is conducting a campaign to increase awareness of Chagas disease.

Rodríguez expresses frustration with the prevailing silence. He desires to raise awareness about Chagas and encourage discussions. Additionally, he emphasizes the importance of testing and treatment for the disease.

And, they are being heard.

On April 14th, in 1909, Carlos discovered the first case of the disease. This led to the establishment of World Chagas Disease Day by the WHO. The WHO has set global targets and milestones for 2030 to prevent, control, eliminate, and eradicate various diseases, including Chagas.

The CDC recommends taking the following steps to prevent a possible infestation:

  • Seal cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs and doors
  • Remove wood, brush and rock piles near your house
  • Use screens on doors and windows and repair any holes or tears
  • Seal holes and cracks leading to the attic, to crawl spaces below the house and to the outside
  • Have pets sleep indoors, especially at night
  • Keep your house and any outdoor pet resting areas clean, in addition to periodically checking both areas for the presence of bugs

The CDC recommends not crushing kissing bugs if you come across one. Instead, carefully put the bug in a container, pour rubbing alcohol into the container, and freeze it. Then, it is suggested that you bring the container with the bug to a university lab or your local health authority for identification.

Please spread this story and assist in raising awareness about this silent illness!

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