Amid the current worldwide attention to the new Zika virus outbreak in Central America, researchers urged doctors to also give due attention to two other life-threatening vector-borne diseases. Leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, which are transmitted by blood sucking insects, can be passed from mother to child via the placenta.

Like the Zika virus, Chagas disease and Leishmaniasis are parasitic diseases found in Central America, South America and Mexico.

In a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the scientists found that these conditions can also be contracted while travelling to affected countries and migration.

In the United States, however, doctors do not immediately think about parasitic diseases common in other countries when they face a sick baby.

"Congenital transmission will be the predominant way that kids in the United States get these diseases because we don't have the bug problem," Christine Petersen, study author and associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, said.

"So, you might have a child going into heart failure or with an enlarged liver and spleen, and the doctors can't figure out what's going on, and the child is on death's doorstep," she added.

Using infected dogs, the researchers showed that these pathogens can be transmitted from mother to child. They found that Leishmaniasis could pass through the placenta, a discovery that was deemed possible by doctors and some veterinarians, but not widely accepted as of the moment.

Dubbed "kissing bugs", the insect known as a triatomine, carry pathogens that can cause Chagas disease. They are known to bite people around the mouth and eyes, often at night. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of Chagas disease is increasing in the United States.

The CDC further reports that approximately 8 million people living in Mexico, South American and Central America have Chagas disease and most of them are unaware that they are carrying the pathogen.

During its acute stage, the infection causes fever, body aches, rash, headaches, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. If left untreated, the disease may pose life-threatening complications.

Leishmaniasis, on the other hand, is usually carried by infected female phlebotomine sand flies. It affects the liver, spleen and bone marrow.

According to the World Health Organization about 310 million people (mostly in six countries) around the world are at risk of this disease. Each year, an estimated 1.3 million new cases are reported and 20,000 to 30,000 deaths occur. There are basically three types of Leishmaniases: visceral or kala-azar (the most serious form of the disease), cutaneous (the most common) and mucocutaneous.

The researchers plan to conduct an 18-month vaccine trial on 600 dogs to see if this treatment may help prevent cross-infection.

Photo: Glenn Seplak | Flickr

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