Peter J. Hotez et al raised plenty of eyebrows with an editorial recently published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases where they called Chagas “The New HIV/AIDS of the Americas,” but perhaps most importantly, this article raised awareness of a parasitic disease currently infecting 300,000 people in the U.S. in addition to millions suffering in Mexico, Central and South America.
The disease is particularly problematic in poverty-stricken areas, where triatomine or “kissing” bugs hide in housing crevices and bite inhabitants at night, causing itching sores that, when scratched, spread the feces and allow the parasites to enter mucous membranes and open sores. The disease is also spread through blood transfusions, organ donations and from mother to child, but most people are unaware they are infected. Unless the infection is caught early, one can only treat the symptoms, but any treatment is extremely costly, putting it out of reach of those who need it most.
For those who recall the early decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it is easy to see how the parallel was drawn, though critics of Hotez’ editorial Chagas say the comparison is oversimplified and could do more harm than good.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, said he penned the provocative editorial to rally resources for people with Chagas disease.
“I wanted to call attention to the disease; make people aware of it,” said Hotez, adding he had no intention to diminish the impact of HIV/AIDS. “I believe that Chagas disease is every bit as important as the AIDS problem, but no one’s ever heard of the disease.”
When asked whether drawing a connection to HIV would stigmatize people with Chagas disease, Hotez replied “I don’t think it can get any worse for them.”
“They already lack access to medical care and many governments are ignoring the problem,” he said. “They’re already treated as outcasts.”
They have certainly succeeded in bringing attention to the disease, and seeing that the bugs have been reported as far north as Pennsylvania, it’s none too soon.
For more information on Chagas, check out the CDC website.
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