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Data Suggests Chagas Disease Cases Are on the Rise. Researchers Call for Inclusion in 2025 Global Burden of Foodborne Illness WHO Report.

Posted in Food Policy,Our Blog on March 23, 2024

Data Suggests Chagas Disease Cases Are on the Rise. Researchers Call for Inclusion in 2025 Global Burden of Foodborne Illness WHO Report.

Image by Doiler Sanjuan from Pixabay

Are Chagas disease cases on the rise? Researchers seem to think so. So much, in fact, that they are urging the World Health Organization (WHO) to include it in their annual report.

Each year, the WHO gathers statistics on many different world health issues. One of these issues is “the global burden of foodborne illness.” This report is published every five years. For the record, Chagas disease was not considered in the last report, despite it being a potentially foodborne illness. But today, Chagas disease cases are on the rise.

According to the WHO, this was due to “lack of resources.” Researchers wish to change this for the 2021 to 2025 report and include this parasite in the report.

How Common is Chagas Disease?

Chagas disease is caused by infection with a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi that infects triatomine bugs. While not typically a common illness in the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are more than 300,000 people with this infection living in the United States. Most of which were acquired while traveling to parts of Latin America where the parasite is more commonly found.

Chagas disease is more common in parts of Mexico, Central America, and South America. The CDC estimates that around 8 million people are infected in that part of the world.

This is not to say that there are no triatomine bugs in the United States. It is just that only a few Chagas disease cases have been acquired due to contact with the bugs in this country.

Are Chagas Disease Cases on the Rise?

According to researchers, there is evidence to suggest that Chagas disease cases are on the rise.

A formula used to prove this suggestion is called the Disability Adjusted Life Years, or DALY. This is a unit that measures both the reduction in life expectancy and diminished years of healthy life.

A recent study attributes a burden of 138,000 DALY’s from foodborne Chagas disease.

According to the study, this DALY estimate exceeds those of other pathogens that were included in the 2015 estimate. This parasite ranked higher that of Bacillus cereus, Brucella, Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens Echinococcus granulosus, Fasciola, Giardia, Listeria monocytogenes, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Trichinella.

Could this be because those that made the cut are more recognizable to a larger population? If Chagas disease cases are on the rise, Trypanosoma cruzi may become a household name. If only in infamy.

What is Chagas Disease?

Chagas disease, like many other illnesses, was named after the person who discovered it. In this case, it was a Brazilian physician by the name of Carlos Chagas, who discovered it in 1909.

The primary mode of transmission is through insects. It is most commonly spread through contact with the poop of an infected triatomine bug, also known as the “kissing bug.” It is a blood-sucking insect that feeds on both humans and animals.

Where are Triatomine Bugs Found?

The triatomine bug is more commonly found in rural areas of Latin American. The bug thrives in poor housing conditions. Places like mud walls and thatched roofs are common habitats for triatomine bugs. During the day, the bugs hide in the crevices of the walls and roofs. At night, the bugs emerge.

How is Chagas Disease Transmitted?

The primary reason for researchers wanting Chagas disease to be included on the Global Burden of Foodborne Illness report is that is can be transmitted by contaminated food or drink. When people eat or drink foods, such as fruit juice, that are contaminated by infected insects or their secretions, they can become infected.

Infections can also take place through other means.

Transmission Via Bug Bite

It is called the “kissing bug” because they are known to bite people’s faces. After biting and ingesting the victim’s blood, they do what most things do. They poop.

People become exposed when the bug’s feces enters the wound or mucous membranes (as might happen if the victim accidently rubs it into the bite wound, their eyes, or their mouth while sleeping.

Congenital Transmission

 Congenital transmission (from mother-to-baby) is a common mode of transmission. An infected mother can transmit the parasite to the unborn baby.

Transmission Via Contaminated Blood Products

Chagas disease can be transmitted through contaminated blood products. Blood transfusions, shared needles, laboratory accidents, and other blood sharing activities contribute to the spread of Chagas disease.

Transmission Via Organ Transplants

Donor organs are another method of Chagas disease transmission. When an infected person donates an organ, the recipient may become infected with the illness.

Why is Foodborne Chagas Disease So Serious?

Researchers urge the WHO to include Chagas disease in the report, not only because Chagas disease cases are on the rise, but also because foodborne transmission is significantly more serious than other forms of transmission.

Transmission via bug bites and other forms of Chagas disease can still have significant acute symptoms, such as swelling of bite area or mucous membranes. Severe cardiac and gastrointestinal issues may also occur in non-foodborne cases, though some people may not experience symptoms at all.

For foodborne cases, the mortality rate is significantly higher. According to the CDC, “mortality rate from vector-borne Chagas disease is estimated to be 5 – 10 percent, whereas foodborne Chagas disease has an 8 – 10 percent mortality rate.”

“Mortality from vector-born Chagas disease is estimated to be 5 – 10 percent,

whereas foodborne chagas disease has an 8 – 40% mortality rate.”

Foodborne Chagas disease is serious!

Symptoms of Foodborne Chagas Disease

Nearly all people with Chagas disease will have a fever.

Other common Chagas disease symptoms include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Leg and/or facial oedema (swelling of tissues)
  • Pericardial effusion (buildup of extra fluid in the space around the heart)
  • Abdominal pain

Less common symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rash
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Enlarged liver
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Hemorrhagic jaundice

Symptoms may be acute or long-term.

How is Chagas Disease Treated?

There are two approaches to Chagas disease treatment.

If caught early enough, antiparasitic treatment can be used to kill the parasite. Benznidazole is an FDA approved antiparasitic medication that is approved for use in children as young as 2 years old. It is commercially available for pharmacies to purchase.

Most of the time, symptomatic treatment is administered. In this treatment course, symptoms and signs of infection are managed as they arise.

Most people do not need to be hospitalized throughout Chagas disease treatment.

Will Chagas Disease Be Added to the WHO Global Burden of Foodborne Illness Report in 2025?

The question remains. Will Chagas disease be added to the WHO Global Burden of Foodborne Illness report in 2025? Only time will tell. If the trend of Chagas disease cases on the rise continues, it is possible.

Want to Know More About Food Safety ?

If you’d like to know more about food safety in the news, like Chagas disease cases are on the rise, check out the Make Food Safe Blog. We regularly update trending topics, foodborne infections in the news, recalls, and more! Stay tuned for quality information to help keep your family safe, while The Lange Law Firm, PLLC strives to Make Food Safe!

By: Heather Van Tassell (content writer, non-lawyer)