Emiliana Rodriguez vividly recalls her upbringing in Bolivia, where she would stay up late watching her friends play soccer. However, tragedy struck one terrible night when one of the players died during the game.
Emiliana was left in the dark about what had happened, and in her young imagination, the night was connected with fear and an unseen threat—the “silent killer” known as Chagas, a hideous sickness thought to arise at night.
Chagas disease, widely known as the “silent and silenced disease,” claims the lives of around 12,000 people annually. Nocturnal insects spread this lethal disease, affecting up to 8 million people annually.
Emiliana Rodriguez, 42, has lived in Barcelona for the past 27 years and still bears the weight of Chagas illness, which she describes as a “monster.” The terror of the night tormented her, interfering with her sleep and making her fearful of never waking up again.
Her panic grew when she learned she was a Chagas disease carrier while pregnant with her first child. The notion of her baby’s well-being and her friend’s untimely death were both upsetting.
Fortunately, Rodriguez took medication to protect her unborn child from parasite infection via the placenta, and her daughter’s test results were negative. However, not everyone is as fortunate as she was.
Elvira Idalia Hernández Cuevas, a Mexican mother, had never heard of Chagas disease until her 18-year-old daughter, Idalia, caught it while donating blood. Triatomine bugs, also called kissing or vampire bugs because they feed on human blood, spread the Chagas disease.
A common problem is the need for more knowledge regarding Chagas disease. Since its discovery in 1909 by Brazilian physician and researcher Carlos Ribeiro Justiniano Chagas, the disease’s geographic distribution has grown to include the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceania.
Kissing bugs primarily emerge from their hiding places at night when people sleep in low-income rural or suburban houses.
When an infected bug bites a person or animal, the feces enter the body through skin cuts or open sores, frequently created by scratching the area.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 6 to 7 million individuals worldwide are infected with Chagas disease, with the majority living in South America, Central America, and Mexico.
Surprisingly, most people are unaware of their situation, and the infection can go untreated for a lifetime. Chagas disease kills more people in Latin America than any other parasite disease, surpassing malaria, with over 12,000 yearly deaths.
While these bugs have infected almost 300,000 people in the United States, the problem is less pervasive. Nonetheless, 20–30% of individuals infected may have gastrointestinal or heart issues that last for decades, even if they show no initial symptoms.
Chagas disease is challenging to treat due to a poor diagnostic rate of about 10%. There is a lack of awareness among medical staff in Mexico, as in many other areas, resulting in misdiagnoses or confusion with other heart problems.
The WHO classifies Chagas disease as a neglected tropical disease in global health policy. Because of a convergence of biological and social variables, the absence of symptoms in the early stages of infection contributes to its silent character, and affected persons lack the authority to change healthcare practices.
As the disease spreads to other continents, it has become clear that it can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth and via blood transfusions and organ transplants.
The Chagas Hub was formed to address this rising problem and to increase diagnosis, treatment, and risk management of transmission.
Despite the World Health Organization’s goal of eradicating Chagas disease by 2030, progress has been slow. Outdated therapies such as Nifurtimox and benznidazole are harmful and ineffective, especially in neonates.
Emiliana Rodriguez’s Chagas disease experience inspired her to work with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health to raise public awareness.
Her efforts are now reaching a wider audience since the World Health Organization has named April 14 as World Chagas Condition Day, marking the day Carlos Chagas discovered the condition.
The WHO has set worldwide targets for 2030, including disease prevention, control, elimination, and eradication, with Chagas disease included.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends sealing up potential access holes, clearing debris surrounding the property, fixing broken screens, and enabling animals to sleep indoors at night to prevent an infestation.
If a triatomine bug is discovered, instead of killing it, it is best to carefully place it in a jar with rubbing alcohol or freeze it for identification in a lab or health organization.
To achieve a world free of Chagas and other neglected tropical illnesses, we must continue to raise awareness, undertake research, and create better therapies.
We can progress against this silent killer and give hope to those afflicted if we all work together. Please spread the news about Chagas disease and assist the campaign for a better future by sharing this story.