updated 7/27/2006 2:46:26 PM ET 2006-07-27T18:46:26

Two U.S. heart transplant patients who died earlier this year had contracted a parasitic tropical disease from their new organs, health officials reported Thursday.

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The two California men are the fourth and fifth U.S. patients believed to have been infected with Chagas’ disease through organ transplants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Organ donors are screened for Chagas’ in South America, where the disease is much more common. No screening test for Chagas’ is licensed in the United States.

The two men, ages 64 and 73, died at separate Los Angeles hospitals after being treated with Chagas’-fighting drugs from a special CDC stockpile of medicines not available in this country.

The infected organs came from one person born in Central America and another who had traveled to Mexico, the CDC reported.

One of the transplant patients died of something other than Chagas’ disease, CDC officials said. No autopsy was done on the second man, so the role of Chagas’ in his death is not known, said Heather Kun, a CDC epidemiologist who led the investigation.

Chagas’ disease can cause high fever, swelling, enlargement of the spleen, liver and lymph nodes, and inflammation of the heart.

Most people infected do not get sick, but the disease can be fatal in some cases and can be especially dangerous to people with suppressed immune systems. Transplant patients receive immune-suppressing drugs to prevent organ rejection.

“We think physicians need to look out for this” in patients taking medication that suppresses the immune system, said Dr. Anne Moore, a CDC epidemiologist.

In 2001, the CDC reported three cases of Chagas’ in three U.S. women who had received organs from an immigrant from Central America. Doctors presumed the donor was infected, but no specimens were available for testing.

Chagas’ is spread by reduviid bugs, which live in the cracks and holes of substandard housing. They are called “kissing bugs” because they often bite people in the face. The bugs’ feces contain a single-celled parasite that can get pushed beneath the skin when people scratch themselves or rub their eyes.

About 12 million people in Central and South America are infected with Chagas’, but only 100,000 U.S. residents have it, according to rough estimates.

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