Health & Medicine

What’s a ‘kissing bug’? Here’s what Californians should know about CDC’s recent find

Talk of a “kissing bug” is spreading nationwide, and it has nothing to do with mono.

The bug – a literal one, known as triatomine – carries a disease that can develop into chronic health problems and death in extreme cases. And it spreads the disease in a rather unsettling way.

The bug carries a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi (sometimes referred to as T. cruzi by scientists), which can cause a condition in humans and pets known as Chagas disease.

The bugs, which are more common in Latin America but have been reported in Texas and a number of other U.S. states, bite people near their eyes or mouth (hence the “kissing” moniker), usually while they’re sleeping, according to WebMD. The bites are usually painless.

The bite doesn’t cause the infection, though. It transmits through the insect’s feces, which can enter a person’s body through the eyes, nose, mouth or the bite wound, according to CDC and WebMD.

Chagas disease has both an acute phase and a chronic phase that lasts for life if untreated, CDC says. In the acute phase, the infected may suffer fevers or mild swelling and, in rare cases, inflammation of heart muscles or in the brain.

After the acute phase, infected people enter a prolonged asymptomatic phase. While most never redevelop Chagas symptoms, about 20 to 30 percent will develop severe medical problems including heart rhythm abnormalities, a dilated heart or a dilated esophagus. In some cases, these can lead to death.

Chagas disease can be treated with antiparistic drugs – the sooner after the infection, the better.

Kissing bugs and Chagas disease have been observed in parts of the U.S. for years. So why the fuss now? And how worried should Californians be?

Found farther north than ever

Last week, testing by CDC confirmed that a triatomine bug bit a girl in Delaware last July, though the specimen tested negative for T. cruzi and the girl suffered no signs of Chagas disease.

A map posted shows that triatomine bugs had been reported in the 27 southernmost contiguous states and Hawaii prior to last week’s discovery, meaning Delaware would be the northernmost area in which a triatomine species has been observed.

CDC estimates there are currently 300,000 people living with Chagas disease in the U.S. But there may be some reason to believe the risk could be rising, or at least elevating farther north in the country. The CDC last September began an education course for physicians and registered nurses, (“Chagas Disease in the U.S. (What United States Health Care Providers Need To Know About Chagas Disease”) that included detailed live cycles for the bugs, lab diagnosis and treatment plans for infected patients.

What about California?

The species that lives in the southwestern United States and Mexico is known as Triatoma protracta, commonly known as the western bloodsucking conenose. It’s about a half-inch long with a dark brown or black body, with wings that fold flat over its back.

The western bloodsucking conenose is found throughout California’s foothill areas, particularly in the Central Valley, according to research by University of California’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) last revised in 2013.

If that freaks you out, here’s some good news.

“This debilitating and often lethal disease, for which treatment is difficult, is rare in the United States, despite the fact that a significant number of bugs carry T. cruzi in their gut,” IPM’s research says. “Researchers attribute the low incidence of Chagas disease in humans in the US to poor efficacy of disease transmission by the bugs, infrequent human contact, and inability of the bugs to permanently colonize homes.”

One scientific journal asserts that cases of Chagas originating in California are very, very, very rare.

A report published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found only seven confirmed human cases of Chagas between 1955 and 2009 that came from bites occurring in the U.S.

Of those, just one Chagas-inducing bite occurred in California. (Three of the seven were in Texas.)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Chagas sufferers in California, though, as there are millions of Latin American-born residents in addition to Americans who may pick up the disease when traveling. Additionally, there may be many asymptomatic or undiagnosed cases.

The bad news? There’s potential that those kissing bugs could spread Chagas more frequently as the climate changes.

“High rates of insect infection, however, would suggest the possibility that the disease might become a problem in the United States as the global climate changes,” IPM wrote in 2013. “Chagas disease is already a serious problem among dogs in some areas of south Texas.”

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