What Do You Know About Chagas’ Disease?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Bolivia
WHILE reaching for toys, a child in a remote Bolivian village touches a window ledge in the adobe hut and comes in contact with an insect, the vinchuca, or its excrement. Later, the child suffers from inflammatory swellings, symptoms of Chagas’ disease. A man, sleeping on the dirt floor of his dwelling, is bitten by the same type of insect. Years later he has an advanced case of Chagas’ disease. From the southern border of the United States to the central regions of Argentina, it is estimated that 12,000,000 people suffer from this affliction. It is called “one of the biggest problems of Latin America.”
What, then, are the symptoms of Chagas’ disease? Once contracted, how can the disease be alleviated? What preventive measures might be taken to avoid contracting the affliction? Particularly if you live in the tropical countries of South and Central America, it would be good to know the answers to these questions. Even if you do not live where Chagas’ disease is most prevalent, there are sound reasons to learn more about it.
The vinchuca is one of the principal carriers of the dreaded Tripanosoma cruzi, a tiny one-celled parasite, which multiplies in humans and animals, and which is the cause of Chagas’ disease. It was in 1908 that Charles Chagas discovered the parasite for the first time in the intestine of the vinchuca. But the disease can also be transmitted to humans from dogs and cats.
Central and South American countries have participated, separatedly and also jointly, in studies surrounding Chagas’ disease and its eradication. In Bolivia, studies have intensified since the 1940’s. According to one Bolivian investigation, 1,800,000 people in that country of nearly 5,000,000 inhabitants are exposed to the possibility of vinchuca bites, and 600,000 actually have been bitten.
Harm Done by the “Vinchuca” and Chagas’ Disease
These studies have revealed that some vinchucas do not carry the parasites, and those that are carriers do not infect a person by the original bite. When filling its body with blood from the victim, a carrier insect may leave its excrement near the puncture. It may drag its posterior part over the bite, thus introducing the parasites into the victim’s bloodstream. Or, at times, the victim immediately scratches the bitten area and infects himself.
Why is the victim not aware of the vinchuca’s presence? This insect is active at night. Often it drops from the ceiling onto the sleeping victim. It sticks its sharp, daggerlike snout into the victim, usually around the eyes, where the skin is very soft, or into the supple skin of the neck. The bite is painless. Therefore, without the victim’s being aware of what is happening, the vinchuca may suck off a small quantity of blood. Later, however, an inflammation develops around the bite. The eye may even swell shut. There may also be a glandular swelling.
Once in the bloodstream, the parasites reproduce rapidly. In the first few weeks, the parasites are detectable by laboratory analysis. Afterward, because of the production of antibodies in the victim, the parasites multiply less rapidly, making it more difficult to detect the disease by medical examination.
In the final stages of the illness, the parasites cause troubles ranging from heart failure to liver and spleen infections. Harm may be done to the lymph nodes and the brain. The victim’s blood pressure drops. Sometimes the parasites get into the heart. As they begin to multiply and grow, they cause clotting or stoppage in the blood vessels. Worse still, they burst the veins. Some victims suffer from enlargement of the large intestine. Digestive and elimination problems may result.
Certain victims of Chagas’ disease develop these serious reactions later on in life. The progress of the disease has been likened to a great iceberg in water. One small part of the total mass can be seen above the water, while the greater portion is submerged. It is the same with the symptoms of Chagas’ disease. Quite often the victim and his physician are unaware of the patient’s having contracted the disease, and the effects usually show up 15 to 20 years later, when the disease is much more advanced.
Chagas’ disease is not necessarily contagious. If one member of the family has it, all will not necessarily contract it. The principal way in which the disease is transmitted is by the bite of a carrier of the parasite. However, babies born of diseased mothers can get it, as the parasite penetrates the mother’s placenta and reaches the developing infant during the last months of pregnancy. It is also known that a suckling baby can get the parasite through the milk of a diseased mother.
The vinchuca is not limited to crawling, but can also fly. It bites animals, too, even though it lives mainly on human blood. Interestingly, poultry, doves and other domesticated birds do not develop the disease. Nevertheless, where there are animals or birds in or near the home, there is an open invitation for bloodsucking insects to enter the house and thereafter introduce Chagas’ disease to the occupants.
Another Danger—Blood Transfusion
The book Usted y la enfermedad de Chagas (You and Chagas’ Disease) points to another danger—the passing of parasites from donor to patient by way of a blood transfusion. According to the publication Tropical Diseases Bulletin, Chagas’ disease, along with African trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness), yaws and filariasis (hairlike worms from two to three inches [5 to 8 centimeters] long), is transmittable through blood transfusions. In areas where blood is donated indiscriminately by the public, serious danger exists of contracting Chagas’ disease. Hence, those who obey the Bible’s law to abstain from blood, both animal and human, are more likely to remain in good health.—Acts 15:28, 29.
It should also be noted that international travel can quickly transport disease-carrying parasites from Latin America to any other part of the globe. Hence, those who avoid blood transfusions are, to that degree, not running the risk of being infected by the disease.
To date, there has not been a successful way to cure this disease completely. Drugs often produce problems that are nearly as bad as the malady itself.
Some suggest internal and external use of herbs in order to counteract the effects of the disease. Herbs and blossoms of the spilanthe plant are recommended. It is also suggested that one eat oceanic plants like kelp, as their iodine content can be assimilated by the organism. Herbs appear to lessen the effect of the disease, but they do not eliminate the parasites.
Cleanliness is the most important preventive measure. This is because the vinchuca makes its home in the dark, unhygienic areas of houses made of mud, straw, palm leaves and other rudimentary materials. Therefore, it has been suggested that new structures be made of cement, plaster and lime to eliminate possible habitats for the vinchuca. Also, the regular cleaning of houses and outbuildings is of utmost importance.
Charles Chagas, the discoverer of the insect carrier, recommended the destruction of the vinchuca as the only solution for eliminating the disease. Since there is no satisfactory cure for the infection, many are in agreement with this. At present there are insecticides that destroy the vinchuca in all its stages, including the egg stage.
However, on a personal level, one does well to reflect on God’s law given to the nation of Israel. That law, along with the writings of the Christian Greek Scriptures, requires holiness, cleanliness. (Lev. chap. 19; 2 Cor. 7:1; Rev. 21:8) When certain diseases developed in Israelite dwellings, the entire structure was torn down. (Lev. 14:43-45) As a result of such laws, the nation of Israel remained free from the sicknesses of the surrounding nations in the land of Canaan. Likewise today, a high standard of cleanliness plays a major part in preventing Chagas’ and other diseases.