Kissing Bug: Are Chagas Disease Deaths Underreported?

Kissing bug disease, or Chagas, is not common in the United States. However, a recent study, which was published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, suggests Chagas-related deaths may be underreported.

Triatomine bugs, which are commonly referred to as “kissing bugs,” are nocturnal insects — which feed on the blood of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

The small, flat bugs rarely enter well-constructed homes. In most cases, the insects nest in wood piles, underbrush, and outdoor pet areas. However, if they do make their way inside, the insects are generally found in and around human and pet bedding.

In Latin America, synthetic pyrethroid sprays are commonly used to control kissing bug infestations. Unfortunately, there are no chemicals currently approved for triatomine control in the United States. Instead, homeowners are encouraged to take precautions to prevent infestations.

As explained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, measures used to prevent any insect infestation will work for kissing bugs as well. In addition to keeping human and pet bedding clean, the CDC suggests sealing holes and cracks in attics, basements, and crawl spaces. Screens on doors and windows will also prevent bugs from entering the home.

Kissing bugs are most common in Latin America. However, the CDC reports seven species of kissing bugs have been found in the United States. Although the insects are more common in the southern states, including Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Texas, they have been confirmed in a total of 27 states to date.

Triatomine bugs closely resemble a number of other insects, including leaf-footed bugs and western corsair bugs — which are not harmful to humans. Therefore, an entomologist or pest control expert should be consulted for positive identification of a suspected kissing bug.

Although rare, a kissing bug bite can cause an allergic reaction. However, the biggest concern is the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite which lives in the insect’s feces. The parasites are most commonly transferred to humans when they are bitten near the eyes or mouth and its feces is carried into the mucus membranes.

Trypanosoma cruzi parasites causes Chagas disease, which can be harmful or fatal. According to the CDC, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of patients who are infected with Chagas disease will develop serious or life-threatening symptoms, including irreparable damage to the colon, esophagus, and heart. In many cases, humans are infected as children and do not begin to display symptoms until later in life.

During a recent study, which was published on May 18, researchers determined that Chagas deaths have been underreported in Central and South America.

After examining the records of 159 patients, who were infected with Chagas at the time of their death, the researchers noted that 42 percent of the death certificates did not mention a Chagas infection. As reported by Science Daily, the cause of death was instead attributed to the symptoms that were likely caused by the Chagas infection — including cardiac arrest.

In Latin America, an estimated 12 million people are living with Chagas disease. Worldwide, an estimated 11 million people die of complications associated with the kissing bug disease each year.

Although Chagas is far more rare in the United States, an estimated 300,000 American are infected with the devastating disease.

Doctors believe that a majority of United States residents who are infected with Chagas were bitten by kissing bugs in Latin America. However, as the symptoms may take years to appear, it is unclear how or when they were infected.

At this time, only four U.S. states are required to report the disease to health officials. As reported by Forbes, the disease may also be underreported due to the number of Americans who do not have access to health insurance.

Treatments for kissing bug disease can be effective if administered in the early stages of infection. Unfortunately, symptoms are rarely significant until years later. Health officials in Latin America and the United States are currently working together to reduce the number of unreported infections by educating the medical community and the public about kissing bugs, the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, and Chagas.

[Featured Image by papanum/Shutterstock]

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