Tropical diseases spreading into countries up north

A new study examines the rising incidence of highly infectious tropical diseases in a number of impoverished communities outside of the tropics and recommends stepped-up surveillance and treatment of infected groups. The researchers focused on south and southwestern U.S. states and Mexico.

“Chagas is an infectious disease transmitted by the kissing bug. The kissing bug looks a little bit like a cockroach but it has the ability to feed on blood and it lives in the very poor quality dwellings,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine in Texas.

He says a serious heart infection caused by the chagas trypanosome parasite now affects a million people in the United States and more than six million in Mexico.

But he and his colleagues believe that the disease is often overlooked. “It is a disease that could be associated with severe heart disease, often times aneurisms, even electrical disturbances and sudden death. So that if someone dies from what often times physicians or health care providers in Texas might think is a heart attack. It’s in fact chagas disease,” Hotez explained.

Researchers say they are trying to understand the full extent of many of the debilitating tropical infections in the region. For example, cysticercosis is now one of the major causes of epilepsy in children in Texas and California. The report notes that another tropical disease, dengue fever, is an emerging problem from Texas to Florida.

“It’s called bone break fever. It causes severe pain in the joints and bones and rash – it’s a very severe fever, lasts for seven days and totally lays you out,” said Dan Stinchcomb, a physician who is chief executive officer of Inviragen, which is developing a vaccine against the multiple dengue viruses. “In order for a vaccine to be safe and effective, it has to be able to induce a neutralizing antibody response, an antibody response that will knock out four different viruses simultaneously,” he said.

Researchers recommend developing a new generation of diagnostics and drugs to detect and control tropical diseases in the U.S. Hotez says there is also an urgent need to educate public health workers, cardiologists, and obstetricians about the growing incidence of these neglected infections.

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