Kiss of Death: A Parasite Threatens Latin American Immigrants

Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. could be infected with the deadly disease known as Chagas—and most of them don't know


The vinchuca bug, also known as "the kissing bug," transmits Chagas disease. Image: Helen Coster.

If Maira Gutierrez hadn't donated blood over a decade ago, she probably wouldn't know that she has Chagas, a parasitic disease that may one day stop her heart. The Los Angeles resident felt fine. Only her blood sample, which contained the disease's telltale antibodies, revealed that she was sick. Like many Chagas patients in the United States, Gutierrez probably contracted the disease as a child, when she was living in rural El Salvador. Today she suffers from heart palpitations and undergoes an annual echocardiogram and electrocardiogram to monitor the disease's progress. "It's a relief to know what I have, where it came from, and what it's doing to me," Gutierrez says. "I know that I'm not going to die tomorrow."

Chagas is caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi) that remains dormant in peoples' bodies for up to 30 years, until it kills them suddenly by stopping their hearts or rupturing their intestines. It's a silent killer; patients rarely show symptoms or know that they're infected. Worldwide, 18 million people have the disease. Chagas has been a scourge of the developing world for decades—particularly in poor Latin American countries, where a bug called the vinchuca, sometimes known as the kissing bug (because it bites people on their faces while they sleep), transmits the disease. But it's increasingly becoming a U.S. health problem.

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Because of immigration, more and more cases are being reported here: Caryn Bern, a medical epidemiologist in the Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that 300,000 immigrants in the United States have Chagas. A disease that originates in rural Latin America is now treated, in many cases, in a cardiologist's office in Los Angeles or an emergency room in New York. In response to this trend, in 2007 cardiologist Sheba Meymandi and the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center opened the U.S.'s first Chagas clinic, in Los Angeles, and have since treated over 100 Chagas patients. (The vast majority of people who have Chagas do not get treated, often because they're asymptomatic or they're undocumented and afraid to seek medical care.) "Forget the Hippocratic oath. Forget being altruistic," Meymandi says. "Congestive heart failure is one of the most expensive diagnoses. If you want to save money in the long term, this should be part of preventative care for Latin American immigrants."

Chagas is a disease of poverty. The vinchuca, which transmits most cases, lives in the walls of mud huts. Humans can only transmit it congenitally—from mother to child—and also through blood transfusions and organ donations. The CDC's Bern says that most Americans with the condition contracted the disease as children in Latin America—and that many are now experiencing late-stage heart problems. "Since blood bank screening started in 2007, 1,400 infected donors have been detected," Bern says. "The majority of infected donors are originally from Latin America, but some are not." Most people who contract Chagas remain asymptomatic; 30 percent will likely develop heart or intestinal disease and die.

The burden of preventing, diagnosing, and ultimately eradicating Chagas falls to the governments of poor Latin American countries, where the disease represents a costly and elusive public health crisis. In landlocked Bolivia, where 60 percent of people live under the poverty line, 1 million people—or almost 10 percent of the population—has Chagas. (Bolivia has the highest rate of infection of any country.) Twenty percent of fertility-age women are infected, and as many as 3,000 infected children are born every year. Other Latin American countries, like Chile and Argentina, have made bigger strides in eradicating the disease, because once people upgrade to homes made of cement, they're no longer exposed to the vinchuca.

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Helen Coster is a staff writer at Forbes. She reported from Bolivia on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project.

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