Chagas is common in poverty-stricken areas in Latin America and has moved north with those who have traveled or immigrated from there, Cohen says. The disease affects eight million people a year, according to the World Health Organization.
“It’s not a blood-borne disease. It’s an insect–borne disease, so it’s communicable, but not in the sense that it’s an immediate threat to anybody,” Cohen says.
A recent Atlantic article names Northern Virginia as “ground zero” for Chagas in the U.S.
That’s because of the high number of Bolivian families who live in the region. Bolivia is one the countries hardest hit by Chagas in South America making the disease more common among Bolivian populations. But most, if they carry the disease, wouldn’t know it, she says.
“Most people can go years without having symptoms and when they do develop they are very serious,” Cohen says.
Some will develop heart disease. The first signs are usually problems with the heart’s rhythm. Others can develop a severe form of the parasitic infection, which causes inflammation of the brain, says Sue Montgomery with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Montgomery leads the epidemiology team in the CDC’s parasitic diseases branch.
“Sometimes the first indication of Chagas disease can be a stroke or sudden collapse or sudden death. It is a stealth disease in some ways because people are infected, not knowing they’re infected, and years later they can have problems with their heart,” she says.
For the general population, or those who live in a community with Bolivian neighbors, there is no concern for the disease to spread but it poses a health issue for those who have what is considered a chronic infection.
“This disease is not transmitted person-to-person or through casual contact. It’s not easy to get this infection,” Montgomery says.
Humans are exposed to the parasite through the feces of insects that carry the parasite, usually through a cut in the skin or by touching their eyes. Mothers can also pass the disease to their unborn child, she says.
Infusions of contaminated blood can also spread the parasite. However in the United States, blood is screened for the disease eliminating the risk, she says.