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Don’t Blame Immigration for Chagas

2016 December 13
by Ben Achtenberg

It’s a naturally occurring disease,
folks, not a left wing plot

Many on the so-called “alt-right” (and on the traditional right as well) want to blame today’s immigrants for bringing in “foreign” diseases, and Barack Obama for bringing in the immigrants. The disease accusation is one that’s been leveled at every wave of immigrants throughout our history. One of those disease threats is Chagas.

Chagas is a parasitic disease carried byvinchuga-1 a large and particularly nasty looking bug called Vinchuga (sometimes Vinchuca): scientific name: Triatoma infestans. It’s currently endemic in Latin America, especially in rural areas – my wife and I first learned about it when traveling in Bolivia – and has more recently been found in the United States, especially in the southwest.

Its habits are nasty, too. It bites its victims at night, while they are sleeping, and its saliva contains the Chagas parasite. The disease is particularly insidious, often causing few symptoms for many years, while the organisms multiply throughout the victim’s system. We were told by our Bolivian friends that the bug was not found in the United States. That was probably not true even then, but it’s definitely not true now. Chagas is expanding its range in the U.S. Southwest, and working its way north.

Some of those looking for reasons to oppvinchuga-2ose immigration have blamed immigrants and asylum seekers for bringing in the disease – and President Obama for bringing in the immigrants. That makes no sense: Chagas is not contagious from person to person, nor does the bug hang around on its victims like a flea. Some immigrants may have the disease, but there is no way that they can spread it others. The only “immigrants” to blame are the bugs themselves, expanding their range, almost certainly because of global climate warming – something conservatives may have a hard time accepting, but that’s what the science says.

Here’s just one of the fake news bulletins about Chagas from fantasy nightmare land. I’m not including the name of the site or any links as I usually do, since I’m not interested in helping these folks boost their hit count. (Note: the highlights were in the original, not added by me.).

“Obama’s legacy includes more than the recklessly irresponsible if not deliberate importation of Ebola and enterovirus D-68 into the USA. Let’s not forget Chagas disease: Barack Obama has brought 60,000 children from these countries into the U.S. in this year. Obama not only brought them in, almost certainly helping to coordinate their transport up through Mexico…He quickly distributed the potential vectors to all 50 states and even the US Virgin islands before they could be deported…Chagas disease – thanks Barack!”

Another site features a video showing someone in a grinning Obama mask wandering through a downtown neighborhood putting up posters that say “Halt flights from hot zones now! SECURE THE BORDER!” and a third site, headed “OBOLA,” warns that “Dogs are Dying After Eating THIS Bug That is Now Found in 28 States.” [I don’t know if dogs eat Vinchugas, though I doubt it, but they get infected by being bitten.]

For the record, although the Right seems to be suggesting that Chagas has been a government secret until now, it’s been known about and publicly discussed for years. It was first described by Brazilian physician/epidemiologist, Carlos Chagas in 1909 and came to be seen as a major threat to public health in the 1960’s. More recently, The New York Times, Atlantic Magazine, and Science Magazine all carried articles about it in 2011 and 2012, which was when I started more seriously looking into it. (See also this later NYTimes article on “the new plague of poverty” which looks at several tropical diseases now endemic in the U.S.)

Though long thought to belackland a problem only in South and Central America, environmental writer Jennie Erin Smith writes that “Texas, along with much of the rest of the Southwest, has been an endemic Chagas region since people began looking. Local transmission has been documented since 1955…Still, the idea of Chagas as a foreign illness persisted for half a century.” Her article this month in The New Yorker’s Elements” blog discusses the increasing spread of the Vinchuga bug in the U.S. Southwest, focusing on an outbreak of Chagas at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, among both soldiers and the dogs at the DOD’s canine school at the base. See also the outstanding coverage of this outbreak by the Dallas Morning News.

Immigrants didn’t cause the problem;
neither did Barack Obama,

…and insects are not the only parasites
responsible for the chagas crisis.

shkreli-2An article in The Atlantic a year ago noted: “After dropping $2 million on a Wu-Tang Clan album, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martin Shkreli has found a new project: making an essential treatment unaffordable for poor immigrants from Latin America…He’s now the CEO of KaloBios Pharmaceuticals, which recently announced its plans to submit benznidazole, a treatment for Chagas disease…for Food and Drug Administration approval next year.”

In Latin America, a course of treatment currently costs from $60 to $100. U.S. patients can apply to the Center for Disease Control to receive it free. If approved by the FDA, Shkreli initially planned to price the same course of treatment at almost $100,000. Shortly after that, however, Shkreli was arrested for securities fraud and KaloBios went bankrupt. After emerging from bankruptcy since then, the company has announced that it still plans to acquire the drug, but will institute “a reasonable and transparent pricing policy.” What that will be remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, Shkreli “has sold his remaining stake in KaloBios Pharmaceuticals Inc., severing his ties with the company he once led, as the small drugmaker seeks to distance itself from its former chief executive,” Poor guy, he only got $5.9 million for what WSJ estimated was “a stake worth about $4.4 million” two months earlier.


For those interested in this issue,
the links below may also be of interest:

A while back, we heard about a new approach to fighting Chagas, especially in housing with adobe or unpainted wood walls. It uses an insecticide-containing paint and has apparently been very effective. As far as I know, it has not been adopted anywhere in the U.S. That may be because the inventor, Spanish Chemist Pilar Mateo, has declined to partner with a large drug company because, she says: “I didn’t want profit motives dictating how this important tool was brought to the world.” That’s a refreshing, but also depressing, contrast to Mr. Shkreli and the American pharmaceutical industry.

This youtube link takes you to some interesting videos on Chagas, including several from Doctors Without Borders. If interested, don’t click away after the first one.



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