What is Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis)?

Updated: Apr 26, 2019
  • Author: Louis V Kirchhoff, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Pranatharthi Haran Chandrasekar, MBBS, MD  more...
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Chagas disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis, is caused by infection with the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. The organism T cruzi and infection in humans were first described in 1909 by the Brazilian physician Carlos R. J. Chagas. [1, 2, 3] T cruzi is found mostly in blood-sucking triatomine insects (kissing bugs) and small mammals in a sylvatic cycle that is enzootic from the southern and southwestern United States to central Argentina and Chile. T cruzi infection in humans occurs in a spotty distribution throughout the range of the sylvatic cycle.

New cases of vector-borne T cruzi infection usually occur in persons who live in primitive houses in areas where the sylvatic cycle is active. The living quarters are invaded by infected triatomines, which become domiciliary. Infected insects take blood meals from humans and their domestic animals and deposit parasite-laden feces. The parasites are then transmitted via contact with breaks in the skin, mucosal surfaces, or the conjunctivas. Transmission can also occur congenitally, via blood transfusion and organ transplantation, and by ingestion of food and drink contaminated with feces from infected bugs. A couple dozen cases of T cruzi transmission via laboratory accidents have been reported, but none recently. [4]

T cruzi infection is life-long. A minority of persons with long-standing T cruzi infection develop the serious cardiac and gastrointestinal problems that characterize chronic symptomatic Chagas disease.

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