The cause: A parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi
How you get it: From bites of blood-sucking insects infected with the parasite; eating undercooked foods contaminated with the parasite; or drinking infected fruit juices, including cane and acai juice. The disease is also spread through transfusions of infected blood.
The symptoms: Swelling of the heart and irregular heartbeat. Some patients have difficulty swallowing and can’t have normal bowel movements because of an enlarged colon. Most of the symptoms are mild or general, such as fever, fatigue and diarrhea.
(PHOTOS: Tracking Down the Virus)
The treatment: Only two drugs can treat the infection, which is hard to cure. Neither drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but can be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The prognosis: Chagas is rarely fatal, but in a recent editorial in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, experts called it the “the new AIDS of the Americas” because its spread through this hemisphere, primarily among poverty-stricken populations, resembles the early spread of HIV. And as with HIV, there is no vaccine to protect against infection.
Did you know? Chagas disease is thousands of years old; the disease-causing parasites have been found in Egyptian mummies. While the bugs are more common in Central and South America — up to 8 million people in this hemisphere are infected, mostly in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia and Central America — they have been reported in the northeast and California. More than 300,000 infected people live in the U.S.