Parasitic Diseases Plaguing Poorer Nations Are Infecting Millions of Poor in U.S.

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Tue, 07/01/2008 - 12:14pm.
Preventable diseases commonly seen among impoverished people in Africa, Asia and Latin America are infecting millions of U.S. residents, mostly poor women and children, researchers found.

Chronic infections such as Chagas disease and dengue fever are a major cause of disability, impaired child development, and pregnancy complications in the U.S., said Peter Hotez, author of the study released by the Public Library of Science's journal Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Parasitic conditions including roundworm and toxoplasmosis, along with tropical bacteria are widespread in many inner cities, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and the Mexican borderlands, the study said. Improved recognition, screening and treatment of the diseases are needed to reduce the impact on patients, who are often poor and less educated, Hotez said.

"If these diseases were hitting wealthy people in the suburbs, we would never tolerate it,'' said Hotez, chairman of microbiology at the George Washington University in Washington, yesterday in a telephone interview. "We need to make the names of these diseases household words.''

Even before Hurricane Katrina drove thousands from their homes in Louisiana in 2005, poverty and lack of access to health care contributed to high rates of roundworm and other parasites, the study said. Prolonged flooding has paved the way for increased rates of Chagas, a parasite that can cause lethal heart and intestinal complications, according to the researchers.

Red Cross Recommendation

An American Red Cross researcher called in October for screening of all donated blood for signs of the parasite that causes Chagas disease, which may be found in as many as one in 25,000 blood donors in the U.S., and kills as many as one third of patients. The disease can lurk undetected in infected people for as long as 20 years.

Hotez's study is a wake-up call to state, local and U.S. health officials that more needs to be done about tropical diseases in the U.S., said Mary Wilson, a Harvard School of Public Health associate professor.

"Most people are completely unaware that many of these diseases still exist in the U.S.,'' she said yesterday in a telephone interview. "Even for health professionals who work in major cities, this is below the radar screen.''

Infectious diseases can be difficult to track in poor populations, particularly when immigration is involved, said Elias Bermudez, chief executive officer of Immigrants Without Borders, an advocacy group in Phoenix.


"Communicable diseases are not reported by poor people,'' especially undocumented immigrants, he said yesterday in a telephone interview. ``With the anti-immigrant atmosphere that exists now in Arizona, people are afraid to go to medical clinics and hospitals, and that compounds the problem.''

Soil-dwelling microscopic worms, such as hookworms, penetrate the skin or gastrointestinal tract and infect billions of people throughout the tropical world, according to the World Health Organization in Geneva. The tiny parasites can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, weakness, anemia, and may affect mental function and physical growth, the United Nations health branch said on its Web site.

Millions of people in the U.S., most of them in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, are likely to be infected with worms, Hotez said. In 2000, researchers estimated that 169,000 homes in Appalachia had no indoor plumbing, and in some of the region's counties, 25 percent of homes lack complete plumbing, the study said. The report cited another 2000 study showing that about 36 percent of Mississippi Delta blacks then lived below the poverty line.

Study, Drugs Needed

More study is needed of which populations are most vulnerable, how worms are transmitted and how to diagnose them, Hotez said.

"We need to take a better look at which interventions are possible,'' he said. "The approach to worms is more systematic in Honduras than it is in the U.S.''

New drugs also are needed to treat dengue fever, a mosquito- borne disease frequently found along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said. Better drugs and diagnostics also are needed for parasitic leishmaniaisis, a skin infection that can affect internal organs, he said.

The U.S. is spending billions to find treatments for anthrax, avian flu, and smallpox, diseases that affect few or no one, Hotez said. More resources should be spent on finding new treatments for tropical diseases that sicken millions annually, he said.

"Here we have real suffering, real diseases among the poorest people living in the U.S.,'' he said.

Many tropical diseases could be alleviated just by addressing the poverty of people that suffer from them, said Harvard's Wilson.

"For a lot of these diseases, basic biomedical research is not going to provide the answers,'' she said. "We have to alleviate poverty and social inequities, and provide better education for people living in conditions that contribute to disease.''

John Lauerman and Rob Waters - June 24, 2008 - source

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Tue, 07/01/2008 - 12:14pm.