Chagas disease has the potential to become the new AIDS of the Americas after scientists discovered a parasitic infection passed on by so-called kissing bugs, according to a study published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

The scientists argue that Chagas, or American trypanosomiasis, has flown under the radar while becoming so ubiquitous and serious, it could become the next pandemic virus and a public health emergency.

As with patients in the first two decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, most patients with Chagas disease do not have access to health care facilities, the study said. Both diseases are also highly stigmatizing, a feature that for Chagas disease further complicates access to ... essential medicines, as well as access to serodiagnosis and medical counseling.

The disease is believed to have hit mostly Central and South America, with an estimated 10 million people infected. It kills about 20,000 people every year. Scientists estimate up to another million cases exist in the U.S., and it is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Neglected Parasitic Infections list.

Chagas disease, at its worst, causes an enlarged heart and intestines that can burst suddenly and cause death. It is treatable in its early stages, although it is largely asymptomatic during that period, and can go undetected for years before finally damaging the heart, intestines and esophagus.

The AIDS analogy, though alarming, is apropos. Both infect mostly the poverty-stricken masses that cannot afford diagnosis or treatment. Both are chronic conditions with limited access to treatment options, especially where they are most prevalent.

The disease resides in the belly of the triatoma bug, a long-snouted insect that drops down from thatched roofs and wall crevices onto sleeping victims. The blood-sucking bug prefers to dig in at the corners of a person's mouth, hence its nickname the kissing bug. While it feeds, it also unloads previously digested food, which also carries Chagas disease. When victims awake, they typically rub the spot of the bite, shoving the diseased feces into the open would and leading to infection.

Untested blood used in transfusions can also lead to infections. The kissing bug lives in tropical climates and most of its victims are in poverty-stricken regions with limited access to medical care.

Many of the infected are migrating from their home regions to richer locales, bringing the disease with them. This becomes a problem when women unknowingly infected with Chagas give birth, as the disease can be spread from mother to child, or when someone donates blood, all in a region where doctors are unfamiliar with the disease.