Kissing bugs have invaded Texas, and officials are concerned that Chagas disease is becoming a public health threat. In Houston alone, 17 residents were diagnosed with the devastating disease. However, it was assumed that they contracted Chagas while traveling outside the United States.
A team of researchers, with the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has now determined at least six of the patients were infected locally. The researchers also discovered that the Chagas infection rate is likely underreported.
As reported by Science Daily, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires all blood donors to be tested for Chagas disease. A recent analysis revealed that one in 6,500 Texas donors were exposed to parasites, which carry kissing bug disease.
As discussed by the Mayo Clinic, the disease is spread by triatomine bugs — which are commonly referred to as kissing bugs. Although the bugs transmit Chagas, the disease is actually carried by Trypanosoma cruzi parasites.
Kissing bugs spread the parasites through their feces. Humans become infected when the bugs defecate on their skin while feeding. The parasites then enter the bloodstream through the open bite wound.
In addition to kissing bugs, the parasites are spread through contaminated food, childbirth, blood transfusions, organ transplants, and exposure to infected animals.
Although the disease can be deadly, the symptoms are often subtle. Epidemiologist Melissa Nolan Garcia, who led the study, explains.
“We think of Chagas disease as a silent killer… People don’t normally feel sick, so they don’t seek medical care, but it ultimately ends up causing heart disease in about 30 percent of those who are infected.”
The researchers have vowed to follow up with the donors who tested positive for exposure to the parasites. Garcia said she is concerned that “individuals who test positive are not seeking medical care.”
Garcia underlined the fact that a majority of those infected “lived in rural areas or spent a significant time outside.” In another recent study, “researchers collected a random sample of 40 kissing bugs” in central-southern Texas. All 40 bugs were tested for the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite.
The researchers concluded that the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite was present in 73 percent of the bugs. The researchers were startled to learn that 50 percent of the infected bugs had dined on human blood.
Garcia said “the high rate of infectious bugs, combined with the high rate of feeding on humans, should be a cause of concern.” She hopes the results will encourage physicians to screen for kissing bug disease when patients present with unexplained symptoms.
[Image via CDC]