An average of 10,000 people die yearly from the deadly disease that kissing bugs carry, and the first U.S. cases have been confirmed.
Central and South America fight a constant battle with Chagas disease. It’s the horrific blight the kissing bugs carry, one that infects the bite victim with a parasite that ravages their internal organs.
Also known as the triatomine bug, the kissing bug is responsible for 10,000 deaths a year globally. Yet the U.S. has held little regard – or concern – over their deadly disease for decades. Until now.
“[The disease] was still very much being neglected by medical schools, medical institutions and public health officials, that was such a shock,” author Daisy Hernández tells NBC. Her latest book, “The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease,” stands to shed a great deal of light on the situation for Americans.
For starters, Hernández points to evidence that says Chagas disease has already been long present in the U.S. But it affects impoverished Latin American and Hispanic communities, so nothing is done.
Hernández’s aunt died from Chagas disease, which she got from the bite of a kissing bug. This off-putting nickname comes from their penchant for biting victims on the face while they sleep. Unsettling, yes – but also deadly.
Once the parasites of Chagas disease take hold, they ravage the victim’s heart and digestive system, according to the CDC. Chagas can also transmit from person to person by organ donations and blood transfusions -even childbirth, the organization warns.
The Kissing Bug’s Kiss of Death
The medical director of microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital, Dr. S. Wesley Long, agrees. But there are immense roadblocks in the way. He tells USA TODAY that doctors are taught: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras… Chagas is a zebra.” And the horses are mosquitoes, alongside other insects we know to carry deadly diseases.
America, however, now has to take the kissing bug seriously. This summer (2021) brought the first confirmed case of Chagas disease in Nebraska, according to California State University, Fullerton. The case comes after the first child known to be bitten by a triatomine in Delaware.
As the kissing bug and its deadly disease continue to spread north, University of Florida’s Dr. Norman Beatty warns that “Chagas disease is a disease of inequity.”
Beatty, a medicine professor, has become an alarm against Chagas after studying the disease the past decade.
“There’s a lot that we can do and that is why it is so important for us to be screening for Chagas disease and to link patients with a provider who has knowledge on how this disease works and what treatments and therapies are available,” he continues.
Thankfully, California State’s infectious disease researchers have found a “new mechanism that can be exploited as a target for potential drug development,” their press release states. The breakthrough offers hope, but no vaccine or medication exists yet.
In the meantime, it’s time for Americans to take note – and be vigilant of the kissing bugs. They are identifiable by their long, flat thorax that bears horizontal stripes. The insects’ stripes can range in coloration from brown to bright red.