‘Kissing bugs’ and Chagas parasite explained

Kissing Bug

Recent reports suggest that the terrifying “kissing bugs” may be cause for concern for health officials in Dallas and statewide.

“The beetle-like insects typically crawl out of walls at night, attracted by carbon dioxide people exhale while asleep,” writes Reporting Texas. “They bite the face and lips, gorge on blood, and defecate into the wound and transmit a parasite that causes a disease called Chagas.”

According to that report, the disease is getting a closer look after it apparently killed a Dallas man who “suffered damage to heart tissue that can develop years after a victim suffers the disease’s initial flu-like symptoms.”

The website dailyRx News reports that the disease that is typically found in poor rural areas of Latin America was recently discovered in the blood of some Texans.

“Houston, TX, began screening blood donors for Chagas disease in 2007,” according to dailyRx. “A small study of those blood donors found that some had been infected with the parasite that causes Chagas.”

Steven Davis, M.D., the medical director of infection prevention at Baylor Medical Center at Irving, noted in the dailyRx piece that “the housing conditions that would permit ‘kissing bug’ entry to dwellings are less common here. Further the types of triatomine bugs in US may be less effective at transmitting the parasite than the common insect vectors in South America.”

We asked Dr. Davis to elaborate on his comments and to share his thoughts on whether Texans ought to be worried about the threat of “kissing bugs.” Here’s what Dr. Davis wrote:

The substandard housing seen in South America and Latin America that are most often associated with higher risk of transmission are thatch, adobe or mud huts, where the “kissing bugs” can easily enter. This type of housing is unusual in the US, but dwellings without screens or with poorly sealed floors/walls may place persons at risk. Further, homeless persons that live in unsheltered circumstances can be at risk in areas where transmission occurs.

The transmission of Chagas to humans requires several factors. First, transmission can occur only in a warm climate where the vector,“kissing bug,” can survive. Second, a trypanosomiasis infected mammal reservoir, such as a dog, coyote or other mammal, must be available for the bug to bite. Third, a susceptible human host that is living in circumstances where contact with the “kissing bugs” can occur, must be close by.

The thing about trypanosomiasis is that symptoms rarely occur at time of the acute infection. Rather, the most dangerous problems, like heart failure, do not occur until 10 to 20 years later. This is why it is important to be on the alert for trypanosomiasis that occurs from transmission in the US rather than simply diagnosed later in emigrants who acquired the illness elsewhere.

Testing  of blood donors has been proposed for areas in Texas where infected canine reservoirs and competent “kissing bug” vectors both reside. Such testing could provide an estimate of the risk for transmission in these areas by assessing the number of infections occurring before late symptoms like heart failure occur.

For now, the risks for Chagas in Texas may be theoretical, but the methods to protect yourself are similar to those used against other insect-borne illnesses. Keeping a sealed dwelling that is adequately screened is critical. Protection of your canine best friend from bites may also be important, not only for your dog, who can also develop disease from Chagas, but to reduce risk of the animal becoming a reservoir. At hunting sites, lodging with dirt floors or in primitive adobe setting, use of sleeping “mosquito nets” may provide another layer of protection.

Read more:

What is Chagas disease (spread by ‘kissing bugs’)?, USA Today

Parasites – American Trypanosomiasis (also known as Chagas Disease), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

‘Kissing bug’ disease: Should you be worried?, The Washington Post

About the author

Scott Goldstein
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Scott is a former Dallas newspaper reporter. His father and two brothers are doctors, so healthcare is his family business.

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‘Kissing bugs’ and Chagas parasite explained