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Nothing romantic about kissing bugs; keep an eye out for these deadly insects

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

It's that time of year again, when reports of sightings of the so-called kissing bug begin to come in. The kissing bug, a blood sucking insect common in Texas, is the carrier of Chagas (pronounced shah-gus) disease, a parasitic infection that affects animals, especially dogs, and humans.

The prevalence of the disease was first brought to our attention in the summer of 2011 when a local woman called to say her husband had been bitten by the insect and was being tested for the disease. As it turned out, the man did not test positive for Chagas.

It was a challenge at that time to find up-to-date information about the disease, with most studies and articles claiming the disease was a concern only in Central and South America.

In 2012 we spoke with local animal activist Patricia Godkin who shared the challenges she faced finding medications to treat her dog, Pablo, for the disease. Godkin actively pursued scientists with the Texas Department of Health Services (DHS) and the federal Centers for Disease Control for the meds. Eventually, she successfully obtained the medications from a veterinarian in Mexico. Unfortunately, the treatment arrived too late to save Pablo.

At that time, Godkin said that because Chagas was not well known, most veterinarians did not test for it. Because it causes heart, liver and kidney damage, as well as respiratory system problems and brain lesions, the cause of death for dogs may be listed anywhere in a wide range of symptoms, overlooking the possibility of Chagas.

Godkin suggests having your dog tested for Chagas if it suffers from any of these symptoms.

South American countries such as Argentina have been pro-active in treating the disease, and are seeing a cure rate of 60 to 80 percent in dogs if treatment begins before there is heart damage.

We like to think that it is at least in part because of activists like Godkin that, as of January of this year, Chagas is now a reportable disease in Texas and the health department is beginning to compile a database of both animal and human cases.

Blood banks in Texas are now screening for Chagas as well.
In addition, it is now much easier to find information about the disease via the Internet. An especially informative site is www.allaboutchagasdisease.com.

The deadly parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, which infests the reduviid insect, can be transmitted via direct bites, blood transfusion and organ donation, in childbirth, and by ingestion of raw or undercooked meat from infected animals, and ingestion of infected bugs.

An FDA-approved test for Chagas in donated blood has been in effect for three years and positive donations clearly demonstrate the spread of the disease in the US.

The reduviid bug, attracted to exhaled carbon dioxide, frequently bites its victims near the lips, hence the nickname, "kissing bug."

Over 530 cases of Chagas have been confirmed in dogs in Texas over the past 15 years. The bug infests kennels and other facilities used to house dogs. The disease is transmitted to the animal either through bites, by the dog eating the bug or its feces and through feces accidently rubbed into an open cut, the eyes or mouth.

For humans, immediate symptoms can be limited, after which the disease usually goes dormant. It re-emerges years or even decades later, causing severe heart or gastrointestinal problems. There are treatments for acute infections, but once the disease causes major organ damage, it cannot be reversed.

In the first phase of the disease, symptoms may include fever, general ill feeling, swelling of one eye or a swollen red area at the site of the insect bite. The bites can be misidentified as spider bites.

The acute phase can include constipation, digestive problems, pain in the abdomen and swallowing difficulties. Complications can include cardiomyopathy, enlargement of the colon, enlargement of the esophagus with swallowing difficulty, heart disease, heart failure or malnutrition.

Ed Wozniak, a scientist with the Region 8 Zoonosis Control center with the TDHS, has identified five species of the triatomine bug in Central Texas. He continues to collect and study the bugs. If you find one, you can go to the TDHS website and download instructions on how to ship the little creature to Wozniak.

A recent study has announced that the "Sabin Vaccine Institute Product Development Partnership (Sabin PDP), in collaboration with Texas Children's Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine and other PDP partners, is currently engaged in early research and development for a bivalent therapeutic vaccine for the treatment of chronic Chagas disease. If successful, it would be the first therapeutic vaccine for the treatment of this disease."

Pictured: Photo courtesy Zelinda Perez
A triatomine bug, aka kissing bug, or blood sucker, found on a Bandera County porch.