"Chagas Disease: “The New HIV/AIDS of the Americas”" screams the headline of an editorial in the open access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, written primarily by two principal investigators of a vaccine against Chagas disease - and it has resounded with a thud among the actual people they think they are helping.

“I think it’s an unfortunate comparison,” Rick Tarleton, a distinguished research professor at the University of Georgia studying Chagas disease and president of the Chagas Disease Foundation, told ABC News. “There are stigmas attached to HIV/AIDS that themselves are inappropriate, but it would be even more inappropriate to apply them to something like Chagas disease.”

Unless you are trying to get attention for your research, it seems obvious they have little in common.  Chagas disease is an infection transmitted to humans by blood-sucking insects, it has nothing to do with drug use or unprotected sex. In other words, Chagas disease is egalitarian and exculpatory and, as politically incorrect as it is to state the obvious, most cases of AIDS are not. No one is intentionally attaching a blood-sucking insect to themselves but lots of dumb people have unprotected sex and use dirty needles despite decades of awareness, condom giveaways and needle exchanges.

Trypanosoma cruzi in triatomine bugs chagas disease
Trypanosoma cruzi in triatomine bugs. Photo: CDC

The authors of the editorial nonetheless contend there are "striking similarities" - more poor people get AIDS, they say, and the same with Chagas disease.   Drugs are expensive for AIDS, they say, same with Chagas disease. The mainstream media dutifully complied, crafting their scare journalism for the week.

And yet they did not compare Chagas disease to lung cancer, which also shares those demographic characteristics. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, told ABC the editorial was written so provocatively to rally resources for people with Chagas disease.  Is that wise, or will it cause people to become jaded when someone with an authoritative position massages data for bombastic effect? 

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“I don’t think the comparison to HIV/AIDS is a realistic one, and I don’t expect it to serve the situation terribly well,” said Tarleton.

Indeed, if it is even discovered, and many people live their lives without ever knowing they have it, Chagas disease can be treated in three months - though it is costly.  Still, that is not possible with AIDS.  And it is largely preventable, though poor people in South America often lack the means to even do that - insecticide can prevent the bugs from being around to bite anyone. There's no insecticide for HIV.

“I was surprised, frankly, at the whole tone of the editorial,” Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases told Katie Moisse. “But I hope it shifts the view from forgotten problems of forgotten people to newly recognized and appreciated problems of people who need help.”

Those are actually pretty stern words, if you know anything about researchers and how they prefer to sound when going on the record about other researchers. Alarmist rhetoric has become an increasing problem because it has been shown to be effective time and again, and it sure got attention for an obscure editorial in a small journal. But it isn't good for society much less the tens of millions of people in poor countries who are the primary victims of this disease - who could now be unfairly perceived because a small group of researchers felt like they were helping.


Chagas the New AIDS? Experts Disagree by Katie Moisse, ABC News

Peter J. Hotez, Eric Dumonteil, Laila Woc-Colburn, Jose A. Serpa, Sarah Bezek, Morven S. Edwards, Camden J. Hallmark, Laura W. Musselwhite, Benjamin J. Flink, Maria Elena Bottazzi, 'Chagas Disease: “The New HIV/AIDS of the Americas”',  PLoS Negl Trop Dis 6(5): e1498. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0001498