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Infectious Disease and Bugs: Texas Kissing Bugs Carry Dangerous Disease

Sep 10, 2015 01:05 PM EDT
Kissing Bugs
More insects on the Texas-Mexico border carry a heart-and-GI-tract-threatening disease than previously thought.
(Photo : J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service)

When you kiss a frog you get your prince, right? Well, that logic doesn't work for kissing bugs, or assassin bugs, which can transmit a disease that threatens hearts and GI tracts to humans with one peck. Adding insult to injury, these blood-sucking insects have a very un-romantic technique: They bite, then drop their feces onto the wound. This often transfers the parasite via the blood stream to the heart and gastrointestinal system.

A recent study by the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) found that kissing bugs, Triatoma rubida, which are commonly found in West Texas and near the Mexican border, carry the dangerous Chagas disease in higher percentages than previously thought. Sixty-one percent of the bugs collected in the study carried the Chagas-causing parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi). This is a threat to individuals and pets in the 650,000 metro population in El Paso, on the high-traffic Texas-Mexico border, according to a release.

When infected, patients could experience a range of symptoms. According to the release, 30 percent develop life-threatening symptoms such as heart rhythm abnormalities and difficulties eating or passing stool. For others, the disease may cause an enlarged esophagus, colon or heart. In some cases, this could lead to heart failure. House pets are also at risk of being infected, so it is important that people are aware of the bugs in their house or yard.

However, you don't necessarily have to be bitten to be infected. Organ transplants, blood transfusions and pregnancies are among the other sources of transmitting this parasite from one infected human to another. Also, this disease can be spread by eating or drinking foods and juices that have been infected with the kissing bug's feces.

"Doctors usually don't consider Chagas disease when they diagnose patients, so they need to be aware of its prevalence here," Maldonado said.

These findings were recently published in the journal Acta Tropica

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN). 

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