Chagas is a fatal tropical infection from the bite of a “kissing bug,” a blood-sucking parasite that bites victims as they sleep. The parasite can also live in infected feces, which can contaminate food or water. The infection is widespread in Central America, but has also been found in the Southern United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention estimate that 300,000 Americans carry Chagas, but most were infected while in Latin America.
Scientists may have found a molecule that can cure the infection in both its acute and chronic forms. The use of a molecule called VNI cured mice of Chagas according to results published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases (JID) by Galina Lepesheva, PhD, and colleagues at Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College. The mice treated with VNI had a 100 percent survival rate and no toxic side effects. The results “represent a possible new way to combat a serious worldwide threat,” said Richard Okita, PhD, of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (HIH)
Despite being an obscure illness, the economic expense of treating Chagas is on par with better-known diseases like cervical cancer or cholera. In the U.S. alone treatment costs $900 million a year, according to a study in Lancet Infectious Diseases, and an estimated $7 billion worldwide.
The parasite initially causes flulike symptoms, but the infected often do not seek treatment at that stage. Left untreated the infection can cause inflammation of the brain or heart and can become chronic. Over time the infected may experience little or no symptoms, while the infection is damaging their heart or intestines leading to organ failure or the need for a pacemaker.
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Children with infected mothers are at risk for congenital infection. CDC is currently screening the blood supply in the U.S. In January, Animal Care Services in San Antonio Texas reported they had seen new cases of Chagas in animals, particularly dogs, in their area.