UN expands fight against potentially fatal Chagas disease that affects millions
The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) is joining forces with Bayer HealthCare to expand global efforts aimed at eliminating Chagas, a parasitic disease that affects an estimated 9 million people, mostly children, and which causes the slow swelling of victims’ internal organs and is fatal to around a third of those infected.
The expanded WHO programme will be supported by funds and free tablets from Bayer HealthCare, which manufactures nifurtimox, a drug used to treat the disease, and these will allow the treatment of an estimated 30,000 patients over a period of five years, the agency said in a press release.
“This disease still poses a threat to so many people in Latin America and now that threat has spread to other countries via blood banks lacking adequate screening of infected donors. This provision is indeed an important step towards elimination efforts of Chagas worldwide,” said Dr. Mirta Roses Periago, WHO/PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) Regional Director for the Americas Region.
For decades, Chagas disease largely affected people in rural areas of Latin America but blood donations and poor safety in blood banks have led to infections in other countries as some people who may be unaware they carry the infection have donated their blood to the national blood supply. As a result, the disease has now appeared in Europe and various parts of the United States.
The disease is caused by the protozoan parasite, which enters the human body though broken skin, and can be passed on either by the bloodfeeding ‘assassin bugs’ that emerge at night to bite and suck blood, through transfusion with infected blood or congenitally from infected mother to foetus.
Usually a small sore develops at the bite where the parasite enters the body. Within a few days, fever and swollen lymph nodes may develop. This initial acute phase may cause illness and death, especially in young children.
However more commonly, patients enter a symptom-less phase lasting several months or years, during which time parasites are invading most organs of the body, often causing heart, intestinal and oesophageal damage and progressive weakness. In 32 per cent of those infected, fatal damage to the heart and digestive tract occurs during this chronic phase.
For therapy, two drugs can be used for the early chronic phase.