Chagas Disease From Kissing Bugs May Threaten Texas
First there was drought, and now Texas may be facing a problem with Chagas disease, which is transmitted by kissing bugs. According to Sahotra Sarkar, professor of integrative biology and philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin, “this year the number of disease-causing insects is quite amazing.”
Chagas disease is a tropical parasitic disease
Chagas disease, which is common in rural areas of Latin America, is carried by kissing bugs (triatomine bugs) that carry the protozoa Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes the disease. The disease is associated with life-threatening digestive and heart disorders.
Data collected by Sarkar, who is the lead author of the new research, indicate that South Texas is at high risk for Chagas infection. A network of researchers and health professionals around the state are keeping their eyes open for cases of the disease.
Chagas disease has two phases, acute and chronic. During the acute phase, people may have no symptoms or only mild ones, such as fever, malaise, swelling of one eye, and a swollen red area where they were bit by the insect. The disease then goes into remission, often for years, and then may present with constipation, digestive problems, abdominal pain, enlarged lymph nodes, enlarged liver and spleen, irregular heartbeat, rapid heartbeat, and problems with swallowing.
Sarkar noted that most doctors in Texas are not familiar with the disease. Because it has flu-like symptoms during the acute phase and signs and symptoms that can be associated with old age during the chronic phase, Chagas disease can go undiagnosed.
Complications of Chagas disease may include cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), an enlarged colon, an enlarged esophagus (megaesophagus), heart disease, heart failure, and malnutrition. It can take 20 years or longer from the time of the original infection before the chronic phase develops.
Because it is uncertain at this time how widespread the disease is in Texas, Sarkar and his colleagues recommend health professionals report incidences of it to the Texas Department of State Health Services and have mandatory screening of blood donations for the disease. Efforts also should be made to identify the prevalence of Chagas in humans, dogs, and especially rats, which often act as reservoirs of the disease.
Sarkar S et al. Chagas disease risk in Texas. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 2011; 4(10): e836
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