While the group of insects that are frequently referred to as “kissing bugs” may sound like approachable and affectionate insects, like ladybugs or butterflies, they are actually a public health threat in the southern states due to a parasitic disease that the insects transmit to humans through their feces. The term “kissing bugs” is a common name for the airborne insects belonging to the Reduviidae genus. These insects inhabit South America, Mexico and several southern US states, and they are well known for invading homes where they can pose a nuisance, as well as a serious health threat to residents in the southernmost states, particularly Texas, Arizona, and Louisiana.
Kissing bugs get their name for their habit of inflicting bites on people’s faces, sometimes around the lips. Several kissing bug species that inhabit the southern states carry a parasite species known as T. cruzi, which is regularly expelled from the insects’ bodies within feces. The parasitic disease that these insects transmit to humans, chagas disease, cannot be treated if the illness advances, and no vaccines have been developed to induce immunity to this disease. Unsurprisingly, the current number of reported chagas disease cases in South America exceeds 8 million, and although the southern US is home to several of the same kissing bug species that transmit disease to humans in South America, the T. cruzi parasite is not normally found in US specimens. This is why very few people have contracted the disease in the US during the past several decades. Unfortunately, this is now changing, as researchers are beginning to find more disease-carrying kissing bug species in the US, and chagas disease cases have been increasing slightly during the past 20 years in the country.
A ten month old baby girl in Texas was the first person documented as having contracted chagas disease within the US. This case was described in 1955, and only a small number of people have contracted chagas within the US since then, but several studies have confirmed that around 50 percent of all 11 kissing bug species in Texas are carrying the T. cruzi parasite. Chagas disease is often asymptomatic in younger people for many years, but 30 percent of all disease cases see victims develop life threatening medical conditions, and the disease can be passed to unborn fetuses from infected mothers. Kissing bugs do not transmit the parasite with their bites, but they do defecate on human skin after collecting a human blood-meal. These bites are irritating, and when people go to itch the wound, they are likely to unknowingly smear the parasitic feces into the bite wound, allowing the parasite to enter the body. The CDC states that kissing bug bites often occur indoors, but applying insecticides within a home can repel the insect pests.
Do you fear the possibility that chagas disease may become more common in the southern US?