In honor of February containing a holiday for love-struck individuals (aka Valentines Day) I thought it would be nice to focus this post on an unpleasant little parasite you can get from ‘kissing bugs’ – Chagas disease.
Chagas disease primarily occurs in Latin America, hence it’s scientific name of American trypanosomiasis (as opposed to other forms of trypanosomiasis that occur other places in the world). You get the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi when a kissing bug (aka a triatomine bug) bites you on the face to suck your blood and then poops/pees a bit in or near the bite. (Nice visual huh?) Not only do the kissing bugs transmit this parasite into their victims, but the parasite,T. cruzi, can cause chronic and potentially fatal damage to the heart. So these bugs have a kiss that causes a broken heart. (getting the Valentine’s theme yet?)
Chagas disease affects something like 8 million people in Mexico, Central America, and South America. However, like most instances of vector-transmitted diseases in this age of global warming, Chagas disease is no longer as isolated as it was once. According to this article from Scientific American, kissing bugs that can carry Chagas disease are prevalent in the southern US. Furthermore, there are many animal reservoirs in the US that can carry Chagas disease and we have found the disease in these animals. The reason we know so little about Chagas in humans in the US is probably two-fold. One, the acute phase of the disease lasts for a couple months and symptoms can be mild or non-existent so folks might not even seek medical treatment much less be tested specifically for Chagas disease. The second reason is that we’re simply not looking for Chagas disease in people. Since 2007 US blood donations have been tested for the parasite T. cruzi which has shown that 7.5% of the national population that has Chagas disease probably got it in the US and not during international travel. The parasite that causes Chagas disease can be killed through a drug regimen but those drugs are most effective during the acute phase, when most people have NO signs or symptoms. And the efficacy of the drugs diminish the longer the person has been infected.
Now here’s the scary part, Scientific American says that scientists have shown that the parasite T. cruzi can be transmitted to and from mice through BEDBUGS. As we all know bedbugs are pretty much everywhere nowadays since their recent population explosion a few years ago. While the transmission of T. cruzi to humans via bedbugs hasn’t been shown yet, it is potentially feasible. So we come back to the problem of just not knowing how many people actually have Chagas disease in the US because we’re not testing for it as much as we could or should be. The CDC has classified Chagas disease as one of the Neglected Parasitic Infections (NPIs) in the US and is focusing efforts on these diseases, so not all hope is lost here in the US.