By Orlando Jenkinson, Herald Staff
(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald (print edition), August 28, 2015)
One of the most wide-spread but little-known infectious diseases in Argentina will be thrust into the spotlight today as the National Day For Argentina Without Chagas is marked.
The government-backed campaign, which has been underway all week and officially takes place throughout the month of August each year since 2011, saw special awareness-raising events take place alongside extra public diagnosis and treatment measures in the northern provinces of Chaco, Formosa and Misiones among others that are most severely affected by the disease.
“The idea is that we’re letting people with the disease know that we have not forgotten them,” Marcelo Abril, the projects director of Healthy World (Mundo Sano) told the Herald. “The hope is that we can show people infected that they have a right to treatment and to raise awareness about the disease,” he added.
Despite infecting an estimated 1,500,000 Argentines (around four percent of the population) according to Healthy World, Chagas is officially classified as a neglected disease by the NGO, which staged the 17th International Symposium on Neglected Diseases at the National Academy of Medicine in Buenos Aires City earlier this week. One speaker at the event, neglected diseases expert and Children Without Worms director Dr. David Addiss, told the Herald that neglected tropical diseases like Chagas or Soil-Transmitted Worms lacked the dramatic nature of other serious diseases and so had been sidelined.
“Other tropical diseases that caused death and are in some ways more dramatic were very interesting from a research perspective: HIV, malaria and so on. Professors were in some ways attracted to studying these diseases more,” he said.
Chagas symptoms are often latent within the body and so are often significantly prolonged. While someone who contracts other tropical diseases like yellow fever, for example is at risk of death without treatment within weeks but may also recover relatively quickly, Chagas stays present in an infected person’s system for years, even decades.
Slow motion disease
The virus is contracted by coming into contact with kissing bugs that live in humid sub tropical climates such as the Greater Chaco region, and can be transmitted through blood transfusions and from mother to child during pregnancy.
It works slowly, attacking vital muscle tissue such as the heart, which can deteriorate slowly over many years as a result.
Unlike yellow fever, which has a widely enforced vaccine, or malaria, for which preventative drugs like Doxycycline and Malarone have existed for decades, there is no current vaccine or cure for Chagas.
On the other hand, the treatment that is available, mostly taking the form of antiparisitic drugs, works well in nullifying the worst effects. “Treatment effectiveness is higher than 80 percent in the acute phase and, in congenital cases treated during the first year of life, it exceeds 90 percent; hence the importance of early detection and treatment,” Healthy World said.
Consequently, raising awareness about the disease is of paramount importance. The government’s Program Against Chagas, of which today’s national spotlight is a part, has helped launch awareness raising events like this weekend’s National Walk For Infancy Without Chagas — aimed at highlighting the risks of mother to child transmission — across 15 provinces.
Special treatment and diagnosis stations were also launched in the most at-risk provinces recently due to government and NGO efforts. The disease affects the northern provinces acutely due to their subtropical climate, but is exacerbated by generally lower levels of basic sanitation among poor rural populations in northern Argentina.
As such, targeted action is what the government and NGOs working against Chagas disease have tried to achieve.
“The government’s Program Against Chagas including tomorrow’s National Day Without Chagas, works alongside targeted provincial programmes too. It has helped promote diagnosis and provides free treatment for infected people,” Abril told the Herald.
The Healthy World programmes director said that in recent years there had been a slight tendency of falling infection rates among some populations since the government effort was launched in 2011, although due to the stealth-like nature of the disease and lack of public awareness about its symptoms there are no precise data for Chagas infection rates.
While the positive efforts of the government and NGOs like Healthy World have helped launch initiatives to combat the disease, though, the problems of diagnosis and treatment coverage—despite it’s high effectiveness—remain obstacles in the fight against the disease.
Rick L. Tarleton, the president of the international Chagas Foundation, told the Herald that despite renewed government efforts, the majority of the estimated 1.5 million Argentines already infected nationwide were not receiving medical help.
“Unfortunately I don’t think National Day Without Chagas had much impact. Few of those already infected are being treated. We have a long way to go,” he said.