Public Release: 

UTHealth researcher awarded CDC grant to study Chagas disease in Texas

University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

HOUSTON - (Sep. 10, 2015) - A researcher at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health was awarded a five-year, $544,329 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct outreach and education on Chagas disease in South Texas.

Paula Stigler-Granados, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Management, Policy & Community Health at the School of Public Health's San Antonio Regional Campus, will form a task force of Chagas disease experts to develop region-specific educational materials and implement targeted outreach to prevent Chagas disease in South Texas.

Chagas is a parasitic disease that affects more than 8 million people across the world, including approximately 300,000 people in the United States, according to the CDC. The parasite, Typranosoma cruzi (T. cruzi), is carried by a triatomine, also known as a kissing bug.

Most human infections come from contact with the feces of an infected kissing bug, usually after it has bitten a person, although congenital, bloodborne, foodborne and waterborne transmission can occur. Kissing bugs received their name because they usually bite people near their mouth while they sleep.

"The disease itself does not present with a lot of symptoms at first, if any at all. You may have a spot or a welt, or you experience mild flu-like symptoms. Years or decades after the bite, the disease can transition to the chronic phase, which typically manifests itself as heart disease, although gastrointestinal disease can also develop," said Stigler-Granados.

Approximately 20 to 30 percent of infected persons will enter the chronic phase of Chagas disease, according to the CDC.

Although Chagas disease is most prevalent in Latin America, it also exists in South Texas. Recent research has shown a high rate of kissing bugs infected with the T. cruzi parasite in Texas, amounting to 64 percent of captured insects in one study and 60 percent in a military study in the San Antonio area.

Treatment for the disease is accessible in Latin America, but patients in the United States can only access treatment through a clinical trial with the CDC. Chagas disease can only be treated during the acute phase before it reaches the chronic phase.

"Chagas is largely considered to be an exotic or foreign disease, and as such, the disease is often not considered by physicians to be a viable diagnosis. This, coupled with the lack of ease in access to treatment, has created some major barriers for successful diagnosis and treatment of this emerging disease by U.S. physicians and health care providers," said Stigler-Granados.

Researchers will target health care providers, blood donation centers, veterinarians and licensed pesticide applicators to raise awareness about the disease, improve knowledge about proper diagnosis and treatment and encourage communication between these groups to develop prevention strategies.

Stigler-Granados will also work with community groups and military facilities in high-risk areas to disseminate information about disease risk. Military facilities are considered high-risk because training exercises take place in rural areas, where kissing bugs are more prevalent.

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Jose Betancourt, Dr.P.H., associate professor in the Department of Management, Policy & Community Health, is a co-principal investigator for the project, titled "Education and Outreach for Chagas Disease in South Texas." Funding for the study comes from CDC grant RFA GH151617.

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