Maira Gutierrez, age 36, was born in El Salvador, but has lived in the Los Angeles area since age seven. She has Chagas Disease, an ailment that is largely unknown to the American public, even to those of the medical profession.
At “Break The Silence-Time To Treat,” a presentation on Chagas Disease held October 1 at the SMC Broad Center, Gutierrez told the audience that she was diagnosed “by accident.”
“I was diagnosed in 1997,” Gutierrez explained. “I was donating blood to the American Red Cross. A letter was sent to me telling me my blood could not be used.”
Frightened by this information, Gutierrez made inquiries of the Red Cross and found that they had been doing exploratory screening for Chagas, a disease affecting Hispanics in Central and South America. Doctors were stumped by her condition. She experienced heart palpitations, a frequent result of Chagas. It was not until 2007 that Gutierrez learned, through her sister, who had seen a TV report on the disease, that a treatment facility, the Center of Excellence for Chagas Disease, had opened in Los Angeles County.
Dr. Sheba K. Meymandi, director of the Center, was on hand at the panel, along with doctors from Drugs For Neglected Diseases (DNDI), and Doctors Without Borders, who answered questions from moderator Julio Cesar Ortiz of KMEX-TV, and from the audience. How is Chagas transmitted? What medications are available? Is it contagious? And why is there a disturbing lack of knowledge about the disease?
Chagas has been known in Spanish-speaking countries for 100 years, but only recently has it become more conspicuous in other countries due to immigration. The disease is caused by a bug endemic to Latin America, known as the “kissing bug” or “assassin bug.” In Spanish, the bug is called “vinchuca” but it is sometimes called “chinche,” a name used by many Mexicans for the common bedbug. Several audience members described the prevalence of chinches in older Los Angeles buildings and were reassured by the panel that bedbugs cannot spread Chagas.
The vinchuca, which tends to live in the roofs of thatched or adobe huts, bites humans, sucking their blood and defecating at the same time. The feces enter the bloodstream, sending parasites through the body, which can live for years before being detected. Chagas is not transmitted by intimacy or sharing of utensils, but can be passed on by mothers to their children, as well as through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
It is estimated that 300,000 people in the U.S. are infected with Chagas and that 14,000 die from it every year. Only two medications currently exist and they are considered risky due to side effects, but persons with Chagas do better with treatment, although there is still no known test for a cure.
The biggest problem, everyone agreed, is to “break the silence” about Chagas, hopefully spreading news about available treatment, encouraging research and funding, and dispelling the inevitable myths and resulting stigmas.
“Chagas is a very progressive disease,” said Dr. Meymandi. “People don’t know they have it until it’s too late.” She encouraged those who think they may have the condition to be tested immediately and also stressed that the medical profession needs to be informed and trained to deal with the illness.
For more information and to receive testing and treatment for Chagas, contact the Olive View Medical Center Center of Excellence for Chagas Disease at 14445 Olive View Drive, Sylmar, 91342, 818.364.4538.