It has been called “the new AIDS of the Americas” — a disease affecting the poorest of the poor in Central and South America. Chagas disease, caused by parasites which are spread by blood-sucking insects, kills about 20,000 people per year with an estimated 10 million people currently infected worldwide.
People are bit by the Vinchuca bug while sleeping. They scratch the area and the feces enter the blood stream, introducing the Trypanosoma Cruzi parasite. Infection can also occur through a blood transfusion, pregnancy or by eating contaminated food. Initial symptoms are vague — aches and fever — so it often goes ignored. For the next 10 to 30 years, there may be no other symptoms. Then damage may occur in the heart, esophagus, intestine and central nervous system, causing much distress and early death.
In September 2012, I had the privilege of returning to Bolivia with a team from Penticton, consisting of Janet and Brett Morgan, Beverley Webb and Karen Judenhagen, to meet people infected with Chagas, learn more about the disease and help with prevention efforts. We travelled with Canadian Baptist Ministries.
Unfortunately there are no direct flights from Penticton to Cochabamba, Bolivia. But after five flights and three days of travel, we arrived. Our bags laden with work gloves, school supplies, a microscope, Summerland Sweets candies, Canada flag pins, crafts supplies and more, we hit the road with Ivan Guiterrez and Alex Rojas, heads of the Chagas project, to the town of Mizque, which has a 70 per cent infection rate. The six-hour trip took us over 150 kms of Bolivian countryside, with 60 km of highway and 90 km of washboard cobblestones, including a canyon with narrow roads and no guard rails.
The deadly “kissing bug” that causes Chagas often lives in the cracks of homes that are not soundly constructed. Part of the help we were offering was to plaster the walls of homes to prevent the bugs from entering during the night.
The first house we visited was that of David and Nadividad with their three young children. They needed to put on a new roof for their two-room house and move away the livestock. The first day, there was very little water so we went to the neighbour’s house for some. We added plaster to the water, waited, then at the right time had to move fast and apply it to mud and straw brick walls before it hardened. David and his helper put on the final coats for the walls and ceilings. In the end, it looked great — just like our walls at home.
We also worked on Ameliana and Calesta’s home — a family with six children. I connected with their 18-year-old daughter Griselda and her young baby, Maria. We laughed, joked and practised English and Spanish. Our last day in Mizque involved bringing rocks into Ameliana’s home; they had completed digging the floor the evening before and getting ready for the cement. We had to search for more rocks and spent many hours making and pouring cement with a wheelbarrow for both homes.
The families must also commit to testing and treatment. The parasite is detected with a low-cost test (microscopic). The earlier the two-month treatment starts, the better. The Bolivian government tests and treats children under 15 and pregnant women for free.
I brought a microscope donated by Valley Medical Laboratories. It may be used for a mobile hospital. We met Dr. Hugo Albarracin Veizaga, an epidemiologist and Chagas specialist. The visit to his research lab in Cochabamba was very special. He had many Vinchuca bugs from all over Bolivia (and other countries). Research involved studies using non-infected bugs and willing Chagas-positive people. They also had chickens (Chagas does not affect birds) for blood and studies. Mice were also used to attract Vinchuca bugs in plants and trees. The bug can also live on sugar cane and acai berries. Mosquitos for dengue and yellow fever were also tested.
This trip was an amazing opportunity to connect with Bolivian people, learn about Chagas disease and help in our little way to make a home safer for two wonderful families.