Chagas Disease Not Addressed by World Health Assembly

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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At 100th Anniversary of Discovery, Disease Is Neglected Once Again; Diagnosis and Treatment Scale-up Needed

Barcelona/Geneva, New York, May, 19, 2009 – The World Health Organization (WHO) has cut short its annual health ministers meeting because of influenza A (H1N1) preparations and has postponed discussions about Chagas disease. Much needed progress in diagnosing and treating people for this neglected disease must not be further delayed, warned the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

This week’s World Health Assembly (WHA), the annual gathering of health ministers in Geneva, was an opportunity for countries to commit collectively to stepping up the fight against Chagas, a largely neglected tropical disease endemic in many Latin American countries, which affects an estimated 14 million people and kills about 15,000 people every year.

“At the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Chagas we had expected that the WHA would adopt a resolution where all affected countries agree to integrate care of acute and chronic Chagas patients into their primary healthcare systems, and to invest more in research,” said Roger Teck, MSF director of operations. “People affected by this neglected disease are once again neglected. However, even though Chagas is now off the WHA agenda, this should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Governments of endemic countries should step up through developing and implementing better national and international protocols to fight Chagas.”

Chagas programs have traditionally focused on preventing the disease by controlling the "kissing bugs," the blood-sucking insects that transmit the disease. But MSF's experience in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Bolivia since 1999 has shown that prevention is far from enough.

“The focus on prevention ignores the needs of those who are already infected and are suffering in silence. In endemic countries, governments should actively screen, diagnose, and treat many more patients,” said Gemma Ortiz, senior advocacy officer for Chagas at MSF. “Access to diagnostics and treatment must be made a priority.”

MSF also urges WHO member states to review a range of alternative financing mechanisms, such as prize funds, to stimulate research and development for better tools to diagnose and treat Chagas patients in all stages of the disease. The lack of commercial incentives to invest in research and development has meant that Chagas has been neglected for decades.

Chagas is an infectious disease caused by the trypanosoma cruzi parasite. Originating in Latin America, more and more cases are appearing in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Japan as a result of migration and mobility. In its chronic form, Chagas causes heart and gastrointestinal tract disease, leading to disability and death.