‘Silent’ Chagas disease killing newborns

The 'assassin' bug Copyright: WHO/TDR/Stammers

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[BUENOS AIRES] For every newborn detected with Chagas disease in Argentina, another six to twelve cases are not even diagnosed, with potentially fatal consequences, according to researchers there.

Chagas disease — caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi — affects around 17 million people worldwide. Transmission of the disease is generally associated with a blood-sucking insect known as the ‘assassin bug’, which lives in cracks and crevices of poor-quality houses, particularly in rural areas.

But while the number of vector-transmitted infections is now under control in Argentina — for example through insecticide spraying, housing improvement and education — ‘vertical’ (i.e. mother-to-child) transmission is becoming an even greater threat, according to a study published last month in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“The congenital transmission of [Chagas] appears to be a sizeable public health problem in Argentina, where it has already surpassed the number of vector-mediated acute cases by a factor of ten,” say the study’s authors.

Cases of newborns with Chagas disease can remain undetected because the infection has a period in which no symptoms are present.

“A lot of pregnant women cannot access prenatal diagnosis because they live in rural areas, or the maternity hospitals do not have the facilities to diagnose Chagas disease,” explains lead author Ricardo Gürtler, a researcher at the University of Buenos Aires.

And although vertical transmission is not preventable, early detection and treatment of congenital infection can achieve cure rates close to 100 per cent.

The authors call for improved diagnosis of pregnant women, treatment of infected newborns, and greater awareness of the problem among medical practitioners.

Related external links:

Congenital Transmission of Trypanosoma cruzi Infection in Argentina
World Health Organisation: Chagas disease