Little known tropical diseases are a growing threat in Louisiana, panelists say

Tropical diseases are a growing threat in Louisiana and present a significant economic and health burden, according to a panel that met Wednesday.

The experts pointed to environmental degradation and climate change as factors for the spread of diseases into the U.S. that are typically perceived as only affecting Mexico and Central and South America.

Borders don’t matter when we share climates, said Pierre Buekens, professor and dean of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, which hosted the discussion.

The diseases on the World Health Organization’s list as neglected, particularly in North America, are Chagas, Cysticercosis, Dengue fever, Leishmaniasis, Schistosomiasis, Trachoma, Toxocariasis and West Nile virus.

Chagas disease, a parasitic disease that if left untreated can turn from a bug bite to heart failure, was first found in Louisiana in 2006 by Loyola University researchers.

Chagas is spread through a number of species of triatomine, or “kissing bugs,” and can be transmitted during childbirth or through blood transfusions and transplants.

An estimated 300,000 people in the United States are infected with Chagas disease. It affects 10 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of heart disease in Central and South America, according to Research America, which organized the panel.

“It’s really quite embarrassing for the U.S. not to have addressed Chagas in a more aggressive way,” Buekens said. “There’s no excuse.”

Patricia Dorn, a professor of biological sciences at Loyola who has been researching Chagas for more than 20 years, said there is a perception that people in the United States don’t get Chagas. While it is much more widespread in countries to the south, Dorn said that three people in Louisiana and 23 people nationwide were found to have contracted the disease on U.S. soil.

Diseases also go from the developed world into the developing world, Dorn said, citing the recent example of U.N. workers bringing cholera to Haiti.

Dorn described the bugs as not very well mannered, as they feed and defecate at the same time. It is through the bugs’ excrement that people can become infected, she said.

The “kissing” part of the name comes from the fact that the bugs typically are quiet during the day and then like to bite peoples’ faces at night while they sleep.

Of the kissing bugs studied in New Orleans, Dorn said that 60 percent were found to be carrying the parasite. She said the research also showed that almost half of the bugs had fed on humans.

Chagas often presents itself with mild symptoms, like a headache or fever. Then ten or twenty years later the disease can cause heart arrhythmias, heart palpitations, heart attacks and congestive heart failure.

Other diseases require more local attention as well, the panelists said. Louisiana has the second-highest number of West Nile fatalities, and in the 1980s, the state saw widespread toxocoriasis, a parasitic infection that primarily affects children and can cause visual impairment. Dengue fever, which is spread by mosquitoes, is also a concern in the region.

Buekens said there needs to be a regional movement to educate residents about these little-known tropical diseases, as well as better collaboration between government agencies, doctors and researchers.

“It’s really time to wake up,” Buekens said. “We really can’t tell other countries what to do if we don’t address it at home.”