June 24, 2008 -- Tropical diseases that ravage Africa, Asia and Latin America commonly occur among the poor in the USA, leaving thousands of people shattered by debilitating complications including mental retardation, heart disease and epilepsy, an analysis showed Monday.
The diseases, caused by chronic viral, bacterial and parasitic infections, disproportionately strike women and children and are largely overlooked by doctors, says author Peter Hotez of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, part of Sabin Vaccine Institute.
Hotez says the diseases go untreated in hundreds of thousands of poor people who live mainly in inner cities, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and the Mexican borderlands.
In many cases, he says, the infections cause disabilities that trap sufferers in lasting poverty. His analysis, called "Neglected Infections of Poverty in the United States," appears in the journal he edits, PloS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
As widespread as the diseases are, few people in middle America have heard of them, and many doctors never think to check for them, says Carlos Franco-Paredes of Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, who was not involved in the analysis.
Franco-Paredes says the effect can be devastating: "If you have these infections as a kid, if you're anemic, your ability to learn when you go to school is affected. If you have these infections on a chronic basis, they can affect your ability to become a productive adult and support your family."
Hotez says it is a "disgrace" that diseases causing so much suffering remain at the bottom of the national health agenda.
"If this were occurring among white mothers in the suburbs, you'd hear a tremendous outcry," says Hotez, a microbiologist at George Washington University.
Franco-Paredes says the remedy may be as simple as screening minorities, immigrants and refugees and making sure doctors can diagnose and treat these ailments.
Congenital cytomegalovirus infection. A virus transmitted from mother to baby in the womb. It occurs in more than 6,000 African-American babies each year; infection can cause mental retardation.
Toxoplasmosis. An infection resulting from exposure to parasites carried by cats. As many as 4,000 women give birth to infected newborns in the USA each year, many of whom suffer retardation.
Trichomoniasis. A sexually transmitted parasitic infection. It plagues about 880,000 African-American women, causing small ulcers that increase vulnerability to HIV and putting newborns at risk.
Toxocariasis. Caused by a parasite. It strikes up to 2.8 million African-American children and causes asthma.
Chagas' disease. Caused by a parasite that can severely damage the heart. It occurs in thousands of Hispanics. Estimated cases: 3,000 to less than a million.
Cysticercosis. Leading cause of epilepsy for Hispanics, with up to 169,000 cases.