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Chagas Disease on the Rise in South Texas

A triatomine bug, also known as a kissing bug, the main vector for spreading Chagas disease.
Photo by Linda Tanner
A triatomine bug, also known as a kissing bug, the main vector for spreading Chagas disease.

A disease transmitted by blood sucking parasites may be more common in Texas than scientists previously thought. New research released by the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin suggests suggest South Texas in particular is an area of high risk for Chagas infection.

The tropical parasite triatomine is known commonly as the "kissing bug" because it loves biting faces. Here’s a of one of the bugs to give a sense of scale. 


Their feces contain the disease-causing parasite, which can enter the body through mucous membranes or cuts and abrasions on the face.

The disease is native to South America, but this new report shows it is traveling further north. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 8 million and 11 million people throughout the Americas are infected by the parasite, even though most do not know it. That’s because symptoms of the disease are often very similar to that of the flu – fever, shooting pains, etc.

The disease can also lay dormant for many years without showing any symptoms. This can be extremely dangerous, because the disease is fatal if untreated.

Researchers at UT are especially worried about another mode of transmitting the disease - blood transfusions. They say there is currently no mandatory screening for Chagas in blood donations, at this point it is all voluntary.

The FDC has approvedtwo tests to screen blood donations for Chagas. The American Association of Blood Banks has created a Chagas' Biovigilance Network to track the results of the FDC tests.

UT researchers say they will need to do further research to find the full extent of the disease. To do this they hope to test its prevalence in animal carriers, especially rats.

Because Chagas can be difficult to detect, it is hard to know who has the disease. A researcher at the University of California, San Francisco,Dr. JimMcKerrow, thinks that Charles Darwin's heart failure may have been caused by complications from Chagas disease.