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How Chagas Disease Is Hidden In Texas

San Antonio resident Candace Stark had never heard of Chagas Disease until she was told she had it.

“About July 2013, I went to donate blood. About six months later I got a letter with the lab report showing I had the antibodies,” she said.

The next problem for Candace was finding a doctor who knew how to deal with Chagas.

“The first one didn’t know much about it himself and sent me to a second one, and he was having to read up on it out of the books,” she said.

Doctors are now playing catch up.

They were taught in medical school that Chagas (American trypanosomiasis) is a tropical, parasitic disease and up to 11 million people in Central and South America, and Mexico have it. 

But Paula Stigler-Granados says that's wrong. It’s turning up more often in Texas. She is a public health professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“Recently, the Texas blood bank supply started screening for Chagas as a result of that. Over the last couple of years we are starting to see cases of it pop up. We know that Chagas has been in Texas for a really long time, we just haven’t been screening for it,” she said.

This next part is gross. The bite of the "kissing bug" (Triatominae) delivers Chagas Disease to its sleeping victim. It’s called the kissing bug because the insect targets the area around the mouth and then it feasts on blood – and then it defecates on the person near the bite causing the infection. Chagas then over the years damages the victim’s heart and can lead to an early death.  Doctors might think the victim simply suffered from heart disease.

“Americans are sitting ducks waiting for an epidemic to happen,” said Dr. Seema Yasmin, a professor of Public Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. She’s concerned that America’s blood supply lacks the safeguards to prevent the spread of Chagas even though blood banks are doing some screening.

“We only offer a once in a lifetime test – that means you can go today to donate blood – have a Chagas test and it’s negative. And then you go back to donate six months later, in the meantime you could have gotten infected with this parasite but because you had this one negative test the blood center is not going to test you again,” she said.

Doctor Yasmin says this is a giant loophole in the nation’s blood supply and she says there needs to be a test for Chagas every single time someone donates blood.

It’s unknown how common Chagas is in Texas. But, it’s clear it is a major health issue.  So, in the last legislative session – fueled by the 2014 Ebola scare -   Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 2055.

“Which for the first time – and Texas is going to be the only state – is going to do active surveillance for diseases like Chagas,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine Houston.

He says Chagas could be costing the nation up to a billion dollars a year in medical expenses and for treating heart problems.

“And if we think half or a significant number of those cases are in Texas than we are looking at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the state of Texas,” he said.

There is a treatment for Chagas – but it’s not approved by the Centers for Disease Control because American drug companies are not pursuing it.

Candace had to get special permission from the government to obtain her treatment from Argentina. – Unfortunately, it’s only effective 60- to 80 percent of the time and it’s virtually impossible to determine if an infected person has been cured.

Candace says there needs to be a focus on Chagas prevention.

“I don’t want someone with Chagas disease giving my kids blood. I just don’t think that there’s enough awareness out there. I know that doctors don’t know enough about it,” she said.

She says the first step is to stop thinking about it as a tropical disease and realize it’s a Texas disease.

*Paul Flahive contributed to the reporting of this story

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi