August 28, 2018 3:08 pm

Chagas disease: Why U.S. doctors are warning about the ‘kissing bug’ parasite

More than 300,000 cases of Chagas, caused by the “kissing bug,” have been reported in the U.S. and many who have the disease won't have symptoms or even know they've been infected.

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The American Heart Association (AHA) is trying to increase awareness of Chagas disease so that doctors can better understand how to recognize the signs of infection, before it leads to serious complications.

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They’re concerned because the disease is on the rise in the United States, with more than 300,000 cases reported. Most of these people are immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America – where the disease is endemic – but the insect that spreads the disease is increasingly being found in southern states.

The triatomine insect that carries Chagas is also called the “kissing bug” – so named because it bites your face and around your mouth at night. After the insect bites you and feeds, it then poops. That poop might contain the disease-causing parasite and can get into your skin through the wound, or your eyes or mouth.

READ MORE: Canadian travellers beware - Deadly ‘kissing bug’ now in 28 U.S. states

The AHA knows that there are cases of people getting bitten by the kissing bug and developing Chagas in the southern U.S., but it says there isn’t data showing how often this happens.

The AHA says that U.S. doctors aren’t familiar enough with the signs of Chagas infection and as it has become more common, should learn them.

What are the symptoms?

Most people with Chagas don’t show any symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some people develop fever, fatigue or a rash. The most recognizable symptom is swollen eyelids on the side of the face where a person was bitten. Most of these symptoms clear up by themselves, but that doesn’t mean that the infection is gone.

Around 30 per cent of people infected with Chagas will develop heart or intestinal complications, like an enlarged heart, heart failure, altered heart rate, or an enlarged esophagus or colon, according to the CDC. These complications can be fatal.

How common is it?

Between six million and seven million people worldwide have the disease, according to the World Health Organization, with most of them in Central and South America. It’s responsible for about 10,000 deaths per year.

READ MORE: ‘Kissing bug disease’ - What Canadians need to know about Chagas

According to the CDC, although the bug which carries the disease is in parts of the U.S. and transmission has been reported, “The likelihood of getting Chagas disease from a triatomine bug in the United States is low, even if the bug is infected.”

The Canadian government says that the risk of travellers catching Chagas disease is low, and it’s more likely if you visit rural areas in Latin America.

Most people catch Chagas from insects, but it can also be transmitted from mother to child or through blood transfusions or organ transplants.

A map showing where triatomine bugs have been found in the U.S.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How is it treated?

There is no vaccine for Chagas, but fortunately, it can be treated with medicines that kill the parasite. Treatment is most effective if it’s detected early.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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