Getting “kissed” by kissing bugs can give you Chagas disease

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.

2 comments on “Getting “kissed” by kissing bugs can give you Chagas disease

  1. Thank you for writing about chagas! Just to add a country-specific perspective, I’ll share my experience living in a chagas-affected region of Nicaragua.

    In Nicaragua, chagas disproportionately affects the poor because the bugs that transmit chagas often reside in the cracks that form within adobe bricks, a construction material that’s particularly prone to cracks. Chagas is a scary disease – as you pointed out – because the initial symptoms can be so minor that many people don’t go to the hospital for treatment or testing. But 10 years later, relatively young people are dropping dead from heart disease caused by chagas.

    The Ministry of Health in Nicaragua teaches kids about chagas in school and organizes “bug hunts” – where they teach kids how to recognize the beetle and bring it in – alive – so the Ministry can test it. One of my friends lived in a community where they estimate that 1 out of every 7 households contains bugs that test positive for chagas.

    The Japan International Cooperative Agency (JICA) plays an active role in promoting awareness of chagas in Nicaragua. For more information, here’s a newsletter they published about their work:

    • Thanks for your insightful comment Lauren. I’m always interested to hear how various countries work to end diseases. Chagas is just so interesting because of the long time delay between infection and serious symptoms. I’m sure many people have more pressing concerns than worrying about Chagas-related heart disease that may happen 10 years down the road. But that’s why it’s so great that Nicaragua is getting the kids involved, helping to create social change around how people are viewing the bugs.

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