Argentine Filmaker Ricardo Preve: On a Quest to Eliminate the Chagas Disease

“Chagas” disease, an insect-borne parasitic disease, is common in Central and South America, with more than 8 million people affected by the illness and over 23,000 deaths from it annually. While commonplace in Latin America, Chagas disease is widely unheard of in the United States — until now. It is deadly, it is spreading quickly, and most of the world has never heard of it. “Chagas” is spread by the “vinchuca” bug's bite.

In rural Argentina, villagers speak of "muerte subita" or rapid death caused by Chagas. It can eat away all of  the cardiac muscle until the patient's heart ruptures. It can devour the intestinal wall leading to toxicity and massive internal bleeding. It is incurable in adults and, while it is not always fatal, it is almost always debilitating.

Uncommonly warm weather is encouraging a northward migration of “kissing bugs” the insect responsible for transmitting “Chagas” disease. The disease can be asymptomatic and stay dormant for years. Caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi (T.cruzi), Chagas disease affects a suspected 300,000 people in the United States, though only 7 cases were reported last year. The low incidence of reporting is likely related to how the disease mimics other, less serious issues, and is often without symptoms.

Back in 1835, Charles Darwin was on a trip to Argentina when he recorded a bite from what he described as a great, wingless, black bug. Darwin wrote of the creepy the sensation of the bugs crawling on his arm, and how the insects were thin before they took their blood meal. According to researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Darwin was likely the victim of kissing bug bites, and while he officially died from heart issues (as many Chagas disease victims do too), it’s entirely possible the condition was aggravated by Chagas disease.

A major reason why Chagas disease hasn’t taken firm root yet in the United States is because of the higher building standards in the country. Kissing bugs are fairly large, and they are less likely to get inside homes that are fortified against the elements. The species of kissing bug in the United States is also not the same as the species in Central America carrying the disease, but with warmer weather on the horizon, a suspected influx of the critters puts more families — and pets — at risk. Though similar to HIV, Chagas disease is not sexually transmitted, nor does it affect the immune system. Instead, the kissing bug illness causes inflammation of the heart and digestive organs, and can cause irregular heartbeat or heart failure, and ultimately death.

Filmmaker Ricardo Preve believes that diseases like Chagas are a symptom of poverty, lack of education, lack of access to health care and poor housing and solutions won’t be coming from drugs and research but political action.

“Chagas Disease affects 20 million people worldwide,” Preve said. “It kills nearly 50,000 per year and is still treated with medications that are 50 or 60 years old and produce very severe side effects.”

Filmed in Argentina, the U.S. and Europe, Preve’s documentary on Chagas disease gives a voice to people suffering from the condition, and to those working to find a cure. While writing a script for a fiction film—a love/hate story between a doctor and a woman who worked for a pharmaceutical company—Ricardo came up with the topic of Chagas. Growing up in northern Argentina, he was already aware of the disease. “Even if it is a fiction film, I will investigate.” he said. “The documentary was the result.”

Documentary producer for National Geographic and now for Al Jazeera, Preve is currently producing his third documentary on Chagas. The second one was a briefer version with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. “I wanted to help find a cure,” he said. “People said I was wasting my time. It was generally accepted that there was no Chagas disease in the U.S, or Europe. People told me, ‘the money is there, but they won’t invest in the cure because they don’t have Chagas disease in their countries, there are no kissing bugs there.’”

Widespread in Latin America, Chagas disease, also called the “AIDS of the Americas,” is a serious and potentially fatal infection, caused by Trypanosoma Cruzi, which spreads by blood-sucking insects known as kissing bugs. The filmmaker found that the U.S. was not testing blood or organs for Chagas disease. Interestingly, Ricardo said, a little after the documentary came out, the FDA approved the first national screening of the blood supply (instituted in 2007). Currently it’s estimated that 300,000 or more people in the U.S. are infected with the parasite, and at risk for developing Chagas disease.


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