BUENOS AIRES (GPI)-- Dr. Ana Cristina Pereiro frequently changes her position in her seat while talking about her work to combat Chagas disease, a parasitic illness that has spread in recent decades from Latin America to the rest of the world. Her facial expressions also range to reflect the love, pride, helplessness and hope that this issue evokes in her.
Pereiro, a pediatrician, works for Mundo Sano, a nonprofit organization in Argentina dedicated to the research and eradication of transmissible diseases such as Chagas disease. Although she talks from Mundo Sano’s central office in Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital, she is the organization’s coordinator of activities in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province.
Pereiro gives talks in schools, trains physicians, promotes detection through blood analysis and helps to monitor patients under treatment. Her greatest satisfaction as a member of Mundo Sano, which means “Healthy World” in Spanish, is offering people medication for Chagas disease, she says. People typically have associated the disease with poverty and have doubted its treatability.
“What I like most about the job is giving an opportunity to the people,” she says, “bringing closer to them an opportunity that is available, but for diverse and complex issues, they cannot seize it.”
In recent decades, Chagas disease has spread from Latin America around the globe through human migration, triggering an increase in international resources to tackle the disease. Whereas residents of rural areas, where the insect that carries the parasite lives, consider Chagas disease to be normal, those infected in urban areas face stigma because of the disease’s association with poverty. Although past generations did not think the disease was treatable, Argentina became the region’s supplier of a medication to combat it last year. In addition to providing treatment, organizations like Mundo Sano are promoting prevention programs in rural areas.
The Trypanosoma cruzi parasite causes American Trypanosomiasis, also known as Chagas disease, says Analía Toledano, a biochemist at the blood bank of Hospital de Clínicas José de San Martín, a teaching hospital operated by Universidad de Buenos Aires. The parasite affects the heart and can also cause neurological and digestive problems.
The parasite infects 7 million people to 8 million people throughout the world, mostly in Latin America, according to 2013 data from the World Health Organization. Chagas disease killed more than 10,000 people in 2008.
The parasite infected 2 million people in Argentina as of 2010, according to the national Ministry of Health. The vector that carries it, the triatomine bug, also known as the kissing bug, lived in nearly 70 percent of the country.
Toledano, also a professor of clinical immunology and microbiology at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, explains that Chagas disease can spread several ways.
“The disease can be acquired through the bite of a kissing bug infected with the parasite,” she says, “through vertical transmission – that is, from mother to child during the pregnancy – through a transfusion of infected blood and through a transplant of organs from an ill donor.”