Spreading disease called "New AIDS of the Americas"
TALLAHASEE, Fla. - State health officials acknowledge to 4 In Your Corner that they don't know exactly how many cases of a potentially deadly disease are in Florida.
But they stress they still consider Chagas disease very rare and that most Floridians "don't have anything to worry about."
Chagas disease is spread by blood sucking insects that tend to hide in crevices and ceilings.
They usually strike at night and prefer biting people in the face.
"They're called kissing bugs," says Southwest Florida infectious disease specialist Dr. Amy Wecker.
"They actually have a parasite in their body and they actually defecate onto the person after they've bit them," she says.
"And the parasite actually passes into the bloodstream because the stool from the bug contaminates the wound they just created from biting."
Dr. Wecker says many people who've been bitten - up to 70% - can carry the parasite without every showing symptoms.
But for others, the condition can be devastating to their bodies.
"It seems like an inflammatory reaction due to this parasite," says Southwest Florida cardiologist Dr. Brian Taschner.
Dr. Wecker says the esophagus can enlarge and malfunction.
"It can't move," she says.
She adds the same thing can happen to the intestines.
"Peple can bedcome extremely constipated because the colon is not working," she says.
"People can go weeks between bowel movements."
Eventually the esophagus, colon and other organs can cease to function.
Dr. Taschner says the condition affects the cardiovascular system too.
"It can cause chronic problems with the heart, mainly heart failure due to weakening of the heart muscle," he says.
"It can definitely be fatal," adds Dr. Wecker.
The Chagas Diease Foundation says the condition if the third leadnig cause of heart failure in the world.
The Centers for Disease control estimates the worldwide number of people infected with Chagas is between 8 and 11 million people.
The Chagas Disease foundation puts the number closer to 20 million.
Most of the reported cases are in parts of Latin America where sanitation is poor and housing is substandard.
Recently, the authors of an editorial in an infectious disease medical journal called Chagas "the new AIDS of the Americas."
They suggested the condition is similar to the AIDS epidemic in that many people can carry the disease and not show symptoms for decades.
Like HIV, Chagas disease can be spread through blood transfusions, organ transplants and preganancy.
But there's one big difference.
Unlike HIV, Chagas cannot be spready sexually.
"This cannot be be transmitted from person to person," says Dr. Wecker.
She says she's only aware of a small number cases in the U.S. - mostly in Texas and California near the Mexican border.
"It's literally a handful of cases," says Dr. Wecker who says that could eventually change.
"It's becoming more common in the U.S."
Some health officials put the estimate of Chagas cases in the U.S. at 300,000.
4 In Your Corner contacted the state's public health officials Iin Tallahassee to find out more.
"We have a large number of people living in Florida who grew up in Latin America," says Acting State Epidemiologis Dr. Richard Hopkins.
"So we certainly have people living in Florida who are chronically affected with the organism that causes Chagas," says Dr. Hopkins.
Another Epidimeologist with the Florida Department of Health, Dr. Danielle Stanek, confirms three species of the bugs that can spread the disease are in Florida.
But 4 In Your Corner also found the state is not tracking Chagas cases in the way you might expect.
"Chagas is not a reportable disease," says Dr. Hopkins who explains other diseases like HIV must reported under law.
"It means doctors and labs do not have to report individual cases of Chagas disease in Florida."
The state's only numbers come from blood banks which screen for Chagas.
"They detect roughly twenty people a year who go to give blood and who have antibodies indicating present or past infection with Chagas disease," says Dr. Hopkins.
Both state epidemiologists and the two Southwest Florida doctors interviewed by 4 In Your Corner all say Chagas is considered extremely rare in Florida.
"I've never seen a case here," says Dr. Taschner who practices in Lee county.
"People, in general, in Florida don't really need to be concerned about Chagas," says Dr. Stanek.
But without laws requiring it to be reported, it may be tough to know if - or when - chagas goes from a rarity in Florida to something that would require more serious attention.
4 In Your Corner asked the state epidimeoloigst, Dr. Hopkins, if it would help if Chagas were made to be a reportable disease in Florida.
"Um, I think we have a pretty good handle through the blood bank data," says Dr. Hopkins.
"We have a pretty good handle of what's going on."
"If you grew up in a location where Chagas is known to be problem, you might want to consult with your doctor about getting tested even if you currently dont have symptoms," says Dr. Stanek.
Dr. Taschner says Chagas is still considered so rare, many Florida doctors may not suggest the screening unless patients ask for it.
Health officials also say Floridians may want to consider taking a few precautions if they're traveling to impoverished rural areas in Latin America.
Keep in mind, the feces of the bugs is what contains the parasites.
So avoid eating raw food - like sugar cane or unpasteurized juices - which could contain the infected feces.
Dr. Taschner points out it usually takes more than a single bug bite to make a person sick.
"Even if they were to be bitten by a bug carrying the parasite, the rate of infectino is very low," says Dr. Taschner.
"It's mostly affecting people living there exposed chronically and repetitively to these infections."