Doctors have confirmed numerous cases of Chagas disease in the US. Although the “kissing bug disease” is most prevalent in Bolivia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate more than 300,000 United States residents could be infected.
Chagas disease is spread by triatomine bugs, which are commonly referred to as “kissing bugs.” The nocturnal insects are quite common throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America. However, several species of triatomine have been identified in the southern United States.
Like mosquitoes, kissing bugs feed on blood. As reported by the CDC, Triatomine bugs often carry parasites, which cause Chagas disease. However, infection is not spread through the bugs’ saliva. It is actually passed through their feces:
“The bug generally defecates on or near a person while it is feeding on his or her blood… Transmission occurs when fecal material gets rubbed into the bite wound or into a mucous membrane… and the parasite enters the body.”
Experts contend “the likelihood of getting Chagas disease… in the United States is low, even if the bug is infected.” However, cases diagnosed within the US are on the rise.
The Atlantic reports that a vast majority of those infected are likely immigrants — who contracted the disease in their country of origin. Dr. Rachel Marcus confirmed that a large portion of Chagas cases in the US were among Bolivian immigrants living in Northern Virginia.
Experts explain that the disease is rarely passed from human to human. However, the disease can be spread from a mother to their child during pregnancy. Although rare, the infection can be also spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
Chagas disease can be treated. Unfortunately, the infection is often asymptomatic. In many cases, patients simply suffer cardiac failure — with no prior symptoms. It is suspected that kissing bug disease has contributed to numerous cases of sudden and unexplained death throughout Bolivia.
Doctors in Latin America routinely screen pregnant women for the deadly disease. However, the tests are rarely performed in the United States. As Chagas has become more prevalent in the US, doctors have focused on screening immigrants from Latin America.
Northern Virginia doctor David Wheeler said he had diagnosed several patients with kissing bug disease. According to Wheeler, the patients were all “Bolivian women in their 40s.”
As Chagas cases in the US continue to rise, experts suggest increased screenings among Latin American immigrants. Although kissing bug disease is not likely spread between humans, it can be deadly if not treated.