The Kiss of Death: Chagas' Disease in the Americas


Further study in Chagas' disease

Carlos Chagas observed that vinchucas, or barbeiros, are sensitive to light and during the day hide in cracks and crevices of walls and ceilings where they rest, copulate, and lay eggs, which are tiny, white, and ball-shaped. They are sometimes called "kissing bugs" because of their predilection for the face. Chagas called the resulting chagoma from a bite beneath the eye Signo de Romana and pointed this out as an important indicator of acute Chagas' disease.

Lassance was infested with barbeiros because of its impoverished socioeconomic conditions and human intrusion into nearby forests. Triatomines were driven from their native habitats as railroads expanded. Crawling aboard railway cars, barbeiros followed westward expansion across Brazil. Many houses were made of thatched roofs and adobe walls, with cracks and crevices that provided nesting sites for barbeiros. Chagas recognized current work pursues a cure for Chagasthe impact poverty has upon the spread of insects, parasites, and disease, something Walter Reed also had observed in regard to malaria.

Years earlier, Charles Darwin had also been fascinated by vinchucas, and it could be wondered if Darwin's fascination augmented Chagas' curiosity about the bugs. Both shared essential ingredients of successful fieldworkers, curiosity about certain creatures and how they relate to other creatures. It is likely that Carlos Chagas, like most classically trained biolosts at the time, had read about vinchucas in the 1835 Darwin text, the Diary of the Beagle. Some scholars have speculated that Darwin had become infected with T. cruzi, which could explain why Darwin was semidebilitated five years after the Beagle had landed. Darwin wrote in 1835, "...I was not very well & saw nothing & admired nothing." For the remainder of his life, Darwin was plagued many undiagnosed health problems similar to those suffered by afflicted with chronic Chagas' disease.

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