Chagas disease, named after Carlos Chagas, who first described it in 1909, exists only on the American Continent.
It is caused by a parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi
, which is transmitted to humans by blood-sucking triatomine bugs and via blood transfusion. Chagas disease has two successive phases: acute and chronic. The acute phase lasts six-eight weeks. Several years after entering the chronic phase, 20-35% of infected individuals, depending on the geographical area, will develop irreversible lesions of the autonomous nervous system in the heart, oesophagus and colon, and of the peripheral nervous system. Data on the prevalence and distribution of Chagas disease improved in quality during the 1980s as a result of the demographically representative cross-sectional studies in countries where accurate information was not previously available. A group of experts met in Brasilia in 1979 and devised standard protocols to carry out countrywide prevalence studies on human T. cruzi
infection and triatomine house infestation. Thanks to a coordinated multi-country programme in the Southern Cone countries, the transmission of Chagas disease by vectors and via blood transfusion was interrupted in Uruguay in 1997, in Chile in 1999 and in Brazil in 2006; thus, the incidence of new infections by T. cruzi
across the South American continent has decreased by 70%. Similar multi-country initiatives have been launched in the Andean countries and in Central America and rapid progress has been reported towards the goal of interrupting the transmission of Chagas disease, as requested by a 1998 Resolution of the World Health Assembly. The cost-benefit analysis of investment in the vector control programme in Brazil indicates that there are savings of US$17 in medical care and disabilities for each dollar spent on prevention, showing that the programme is a health investment with very high return. Many well-known research institutions in Latin America were key elements of a worldwide network of laboratories that carried out basic and applied research supporting the planning and evaluation of national Chagas disease control programmes. The present
article reviews the current epidemiological trends for Chagas disease in Latin America and the future challenges in terms of epidemiology, surveillance and health policy.