Chagas disease virus in Peru: Are we due an outbreak of global disease?

By Paul Gilbert, BBC News science reporter

The new Chagas disease incursion has previously been dubbed ‘the weapon of mass infection’

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a dramatic alert about the incursion of an infective vector on to Peru’s east coast, from Mexico.

It is the first recorded instance of Chagas disease being imported to a Latin American country.

According to WHO, thousands of people are at risk from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the main carrier of the disease.

So why the name choice and how did it emerge?

‘The weapon of mass infection’

Chagas disease was first identified in Peru in 1849 and has spread across the continent ever since.

The exact cause of the disease has long been unclear – it was given the name of an Italian mathematician but who exactly is to blame is a matter of debate.

All the disease can do is sit on the surface of the blood and cause itching, swelling and dizziness.

In sufferers, heart disease, dementia and heart failure follow – the body’s immune system is affected.

Chagas is difficult to treat and causes major financial losses to the countries that have it.

The WHO’s advisory for the new incursion has been titled “Virus invades in Peru – urgent action needed”.

It cites the previous and recent case of Chagas disease in Venezuela, which has seen an outbreak of the illness.

It also focuses on the VRE, Yellow Fever virus, caused by the same mosquito that also carries Chagas.

WHO declared VRE incursions a public health emergency of international concern in 2012 and says “emergency decontamination camps” will be necessary for countries in the Americas “to reduce the risk of further spreading of the virus”.

FIVE CHAGAS DISEASES Chagas disease: A tropical disease transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. A newly established Cuban fleet of mosquito-destroying nets could help provide an effective defence to it There are no vaccine or treatments

Chagas encephalitis: A neurological disease that affects the brain of patients infected by Chagas disease The WHO warns that the disease could mutate to become resistant to pesticides

Pneumonia: Infected human lungs contain the genetic material of the Chagas disease gene, the NCDID 1, which caused the disease until it was discovered in 1907. The WHO warns that some types of pneumonia are particularly lethal

Gehytemelia encephalitis: Originally caused by a baby bumping into the mosquito (or vice versa), then subsumed by the Chagas disease gene. Pneumonia and kidney failure are frequently involved during most cases. The WHO warns that it has the potential to be a “major killer”

Incursion a first

On 1 January, WHO stated that “analysis suggests that some strains of the Chagas virus originate in South America”, and on 7 January, they named one type of the virus, “Omicron” after it was found on a lake in Mexico.

The emergent name, possibly reflecting what they see as the idea of the disease as an insectistic weapon of mass infection, has been somewhat assailed by everyone from Wikipedia to The Guardian.

But Dr Javier Luna-Barrera, WHO’s director of vector borne diseases, told BBC News that “because of the results of the work we carried out in Venezuela, we decided to work on this idea that it could be a weapon of mass infection”.

In this case the evidence is not in to say it will be a human weapon – but it is a thought that the disease and the virus could be manufactured in the same factory and be transmitted in similar ways.

Further details on the virus strain that has moved into Peru will be made available on Tuesday.

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