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Chagas disease is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, a parasite related to the African trypanosome that causes sleeping sickness, according to the National Library of Medicine. It is spread by reduvid bugs and is one of the major health problems in South America. Due to immigration, the disease also affects people in the United States, and has some experts concerned it could lead to a pandemic.

"The infection affects up to 20 million people in Mexico, Central America, and South America, making Chagas disease the highest impact infectious disease in Latin America," The Chagas Foudnation reported. Roughly 30,000 people in the U.S. suffer from Chagas disease, with many of them living in southern Texas.

Chagas disease has two phases: acute and chronic. The acute phase may have no symptoms or very mild symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • General ill feeling (malaise)
  • Swelling of one eye
  • Swollen red area at site of insect bite

Following the acute phase, the disease goes into remission, and symptoms may remain hidden for years. When symptoms finally develop, they may include:

  • Constipation
  • Digestive problems
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Swallowing difficulties

If you think you may be infected with Chagas disease, schedule an appointment with your physician. Diagnosis can typically be made through a physical examination, blood tests and other biometric screenings.The acute phase and reactivated Chagas disease should be treated.

Treating the chronic phase is recommended for both children and adults; infants born with the infection should also be treated.

Two drugs are used to treat this infection: benznidazole and nifurtimox. Both drugs often have side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, loss of appetite and weight, skin rashes and more. The side effects may be more severe in elderly people.

About 30 percent of infected people who are not treated will develop chronic or symptomatic Chagas disease. It may take more than 20 years from the time of the original infection to develop heart or digestive problems.

Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias, ventricular tachycardia) may cause sudden death. Once heart failure develops, death usually occurs within several years.

One way to help slow the spread of the disease is to eliminate insects from houses; insecticides will help to this effect.