Why you should care

Because here’s yet another reason to hate ineffectual politics.

OK, maybe Congress didn’t give you worms, but if you are one of the estimated 12 million Americans who are living with a “tropical parasite,” Congress definitely let you get worms. According to research published last September, nasty parasites that usually populate the developing world are officially on the rise in the U.S., due in part to the soaring number of people who live on less than $2 per day.

These parasites are gross. Like, really gross. For example, the parasite T. cruzi makes its way into your body through the bite of the blood-sucking “kissing bug” and causes Chagas disease, which feels like the flu at first. Except it can lead to heart failure after the parasite has lived in your heart for a few years. Alternatively, hookworm larvae can get into your tissues through contaminated food or water, and once these baby worms have been in your body awhile, they can cause headaches and seizures because they live in your brain. Fun, right? And this is only the beginning. Researchers think these parasitic infections may be an unacknowledged cause of heart disease and epilepsy, leading to a larger burden of chronic disease that we cannot effectively treat because we don’t understand its real causes.

With America’s resources and technology, we oughta control these “neglected tropical infections.

While these infections may seem new to us, they have actually been endemic in the developing world as far back as we have records. They haven’t been a problem in the United States for a long time because we have reliable water and sanitation systems, as well as a pretty high standard of living. In the developed world, animals are typically kept from human food and contaminants out of water, which are some of the major causes of these diseases. Sadly, right now many people in the U.S. are so poor that these benefits of the developed world are not available to them. This means they’re getting parasites that, until now, medical professionals thought were problems of the past or of far-off places. That’s another scary thing about these parasites (because they aren’t scary enough already) — they have more or less fallen off the radar, and many doctors may not even know to test for them.

At this point, if you haven’t run screaming from the room, you may think that someone should do something about this. The United States is one of the most developed countries in the world, and with our resources and technology, we oughta control these “neglected tropical infections.” The good news is that we have tried to do something about it. In 2011, Democrats introduced a bill to monitor and figure out how to manage these infections (House Bill 528). The bill would have ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to gather information about these parasites and recommend policies to control them. While it made it out of committee, the bill ended up dying on the House floor. This was the same Congress that was the least productive in recorded history and nearly let our government shut itself down. (Not to sound cynical, but the just-concluded 113th Congress was the second least productive in U.S. history and did, in fact, let the government shut down. Looks like this problem isn’t going away.)

What else did the government let us catch? Wait for it … Ebola. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, has said we might have an Ebola vaccine today if it weren’t for funding cuts. The 2013 sequester, a bunch of automatic budget cuts that kicked in when lawmakers couldn’t agree on deficit reduction, cut NIH funding by more than $1.5 billion. That’s approximately 640 research projects that can’t be funded because our politicians don’t get along. The lesson many people have taken from the Ebola pandemic is that everyone’s problems are our problems, and that global diseases will eventually reach American shores. The reemergence of parasitic infections in the United States is yet another reminder of that, but it’s also an example of how political infighting can harm our collective health.

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