Little-Known Killer Disease Sneaks Up on Los Angeles

"My name is Connor Eckhart and I just found out that I have Chagas disease 2 days ago." Audience members, mostly of Hispanic race, quickly crank their heads to the right of the Broad Stage where a young nervous man is gripping the microphone staring hopefully at the four presenters in front of him.  He wipes the sweat off of his blonde brow and asks, "How accessible is treatment?" Eckhart is quickly responded with a doctor's personal number and easy directions on getting much needed medicine.

After he sits down, a few more people, young and old, have general questions about Chagas disease. One man wonders, "There are chinch bugs all over my neighborhood, should I be worried that they carry Chagas?" An elderly woman named Sonya explains how she was infected with Chagas disease when she was 6 years old, and after two surgeries and multiple stress tests on her heart, she is still not disease free at 68 years old.

Chagas disease is an unknown killer caused by infection of Trypanosoma cruzi parasite. T. cruzi is most commonly transmitted by the Vinchuca bug, also known as the 'Kissing bug', which is how Eckhart believes he received the parasite while on a school trip in Costa Rica at the beginning of this year.

"I had a dream one night that a bug was eating at my eye; I woke up slapping my face but didn't see anything there or around me. Now that I read more about it, the room where I was staying was in perfect condition for those bugs to exist."  He said that before the trip they were warned about certain bugs, including the Kissing bug, but were never told about possibly getting Chagas disease.

There are 300,000 in the United States infected, 15 million cases worldwide, and 100 million at risk Doctors Without Borders and Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) are teaming up to spreak knowledge about this little known disease so that if people find themselves infected with it, their doctors can treat them immediately.  On Thursday, Oct. 1 Doctors Without Borders and DNDi put together a panel discussion for Chagas disease at Madison Campus' Broad Stage. Moderating the panel was Julio Cesar Ortiz, a reporter for KMEX 34, Univision Los Angeles.

The  first speaker was Maira Gutierrez, whom has had Chagas disease for over a decade. Gutierrez found out she had the disease after donating blood through Red Cross in 1997, who was coincidentally running a trial test for Chagas disease. After 11 years of searching for treatment she saw Ortiz's segment on the news about Chagas disease.

Another panelist was Dr. Bernard Pecoul, the executive director of DNDi since its founding in 2003. Based in Geneva, DNDi is a non-profit organization working to find treatment for such neglected diseases as malaria and sleeping sickness.

Although the disease is primarily present in Latin America it is making its way through Los Angeles.  Other ways to receive the disease is through blood transfusions, eating uncooked food contaminated with bug feces, and infected pregnant women can pass it on to their babies through delivery or breast feeding.

Chagas disease has three stages, and only one of three people infected with the parasite develops Chagas. Some people with acute infection have swelling of the eye, fever, rash or itchiness on the skin, and vomiting shortly after being in contact with the parasite. The intermediate stage leaves the infected with no symptoms. Chronic infection leaves damage to the heart, which can appear up to 20 years after infection.

Eckhart started feeling heart palpitations about four months after his return from Costa Rica. Being an active guy, he couldn't tell if his heart was just being overworked, but he asked for an EKG test anyway. The first few doctors he went to could not find anything wrong until he finally had a blood test done, which proved Chagas was positive. Since then he has contacted the CDC, since his doctors have no idea what to do with the disease, and coming to this panel has finally given him a direction on how to find treatment before it develops into something worse.

Although being at risk for Chagas may not be common in most Santa Monica College students, if you have visited Latin America or your mother has an unknown heart condition, it wouldn't hurt to get checked out. Thanks to Doctors Without Borders and DNDi, infected patients can receive the treatment they have searched high and low for, and finally break the silence of this unknown killer.