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Is the Risk of Chagas Disease Rising in Texas?

Image courtesy Dr. Edward Wozniak/DSHS
Chagas disease is blamed for more than 12,000 deaths each year.

You know how some bugs – like mosquitos – can transmit illnesses, like the West Nile virus or malaria, through a bite?

Well, a bug with a cute nickname and a disgusting habit may be transmitting Chagas disease to Texans across the state. The insect is a bloodsucker known as the “kissing bug,” but it’s not the bloodsucking that’s making people sick.

Rosa Maldonado, a biology professor and researcher at the University of Texas at El Paso, says it’s the feces. The cockroach-looking insects bite, then do their business, and humans unwittingly assist in the spread of this illness.

“The ones that are the best for transmission of the disease are the ones that eat and defecate simultaneously," Maldonado says. "When you scratch, you help the parasite to go through the wound through the open skin and go into your body. And once the parasite enters your body, it’s able to hijack any cell in your body.”

This alien hijacking can affect your heart and gastrointestinal system. But many people go quite a while, even decades, without knowing they have Chagas disease.

That's probably because symptoms like body aches, fever, fatigue, diarrhea, loss of appetite and vomiting, mimic the symptoms of the flu.

According to the Centers for Disease Control those symptoms may only last a few weeks, but the disease stays in the system.

Melissa Nolan Garcia is an epidemiologist at Baylor’s College of Medicine in Houston, where she’s investigating the spread of the disease. She says one of the challenges with Chagas disease is basic diagnosis.

“Diagnosis is certainly very complicated right now in the United States, and really in all of the endemic countries,” Garcia says. “There’s some chance that there could be cross-reactivity with leishmaniasis, which is another similar parasitic disease. So we have to do at least two or more tests to verify that you truly are positive.”

It was once commonly presumed that when a Texan was diagnosed with the disease, the person likely contracted it while traveling in South or Central America. But researchers now recognize that several factors, including global warming, have caused the disease to migrate to higher latitudes. One can contract it in Texas simply by spending a substantial amount of time outdoors in rural areas.

UT El Paso biologist and researcher Ian Etheridge is an avid outdoorsman who loves to camp and hang out with his dogs. He had no idea that you could catch the disease in Texas.

“I have heard of Chagas disease… but I always thought it was tied to certain areas and things like that,” he says.

But now that he does know, Etheridge says while he’s not exactly scared of catching the disease, he’s certainly going to be keeping an eye out for it.

“Usually you pay attention to mosquitoes and horseflies because they hurt,” Etheridge says. “Maybe I’ll take a second look at the next thing that lands on me and gives me a little bite. I’m going to go find out what a kissing bug looks like.”

The bottom line? You might want to do a bit of online research before your next outdoor trip.