Members of a typically subtropical family of insects commonly known as kissing bugs have been making their way further north in the United States, while carrying the deadly Chagas disease.
Chagas disease, or American trypanosomiasis, is a parasitic ailment caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi. The parasite exists in the feces of the kissing bug (Triatoma infestans), and is spread while the insect is feeding on the blood of a vertebrate host, as it rubs its abdomen against an open bite wound.
Acute infection with Chagas disease brings on mild symptoms which include fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches and local swelling at the site of the bite. Chronic infection, which can take decades to produce symptoms, can lead to enlargement of the ventricles of the heart, leading to heart failure, and an enlarged esophagus and colon.
The kissing bug, also known as the assassin bug, tends to go for its host’s lips while feeding:
Roughly 8 million people are living with Chagas disease worldwide, and anti-parasitic medications are usually effective, if treatment is given during the acute phase of the infection. Treatment is less successful if a patient develops a chronic illness.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control believe that at least 300,000 Americans carry the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, though domestic infection is rare, and it is believed that most cases of Chagas were contracted in Central and South America, where the disease is endemic.
The CDC points out that while there are eleven different species of kissing bug that occur in the U.S., most of them do not carry Chagas.
Below is a map of where kissing bugs have been recorded in North America:
The CDC considers Chagas as one of several neglected tropical diseases that it is focusing on. Roughly 11,000 people die annually of the disease, but its association with immigration and poverty may be preventing widespread awareness.