updated 2/2/2004 5:01:11 PM ET 2004-02-02T22:01:11

Chagas disease, a deadly parasitic blood illness that recently has drawn attention in this country, has infected some South and Central Americans for at least 9,000 years, researchers said Monday.

The Red Cross, alarmed about reports of Chagas disease in the United States, announced last year that it expects to begin testing donated blood for the disease. Seven cases, spread by transfusions, have been reported in the United States and Canada since 1986.

Now a team of researchers led by Arthur C. Aufderheide of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in Duluth reports evidence that the disease infected residents of the coastal Andes mountains as long as 9,000 years ago.

The team tested 283 mummies and found evidence for the DNA of the parasite that causes the disease on almost 41 percent, they report in the online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chagas disease is caused by the trypanosome parasite, which burrows into its host’s tissue and multiplies. There is no cure, and the disease eventually overwhelms patients’ systems. The parasite is spread by insects that feed on blood.

The mummies were preserved naturally, dried out in the arid climate of the Andes around what is now Peru.

Humans began to populate the area around 7050 B.C., and the team found evidence of the disease in about the same percentage of mummies, regardless of how old they were or the age or sex of the person.

The researchers point out in the paper that the insect-friendly thatch housing widely used in ancient times still is common in the area.

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