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Chagas is a deadly import in United States

KFDX, in a story posted July 27, reported that the insect that carries the deadly Chagas parasite is becoming a pest in Texas. The kissing bug, and Texas is home to seven species of the insect, is responsible for the spread of a parasite that can be deadly to humans. Chagas is endemic to much of Central and South America, though not the Caribbean, and can only be contracted in the Western Hemisphere.

The map details triatomine occurrence by U.S. state. There are 11 known species of the kissing bug in the U.S.
CDC / public domain

A July 24 article in The Atlantic focused on Chagas in a community of Bolivian origin in Northern Virginia. The magazine interviewed local physicians and found about two dozen illnesses in the area. In 2010, the first recorded United States transmission of Chagas from mother to child was recorded in the same region.

Chagas is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. The parasite is carried by an infected triatomine bug, sometimes called "the kissing bug". The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that 11 different species of this insect are found in the United States but nearly all are free of the parasite. These nocturnal insects feed on the blood of mammals, including humans, but that is not how the parasite is transmitted.

Transmission of the Chagas parasite occurs through the insect vector's feces. The patient may scratch or rub the bite area, picking up feces on their fingers or hands and then touch broken skin or mucus membranes which allow the parasite to enter the body. Mothers can pass the illness to their unborn children. Uncooked food contaminated by the insects can also transmit the parasite. The disease cannot be spread through human to human contact, despite the vector being called "the kissing bug."

Chagas occurs in two phases, an acute stage and a chronic stage. Acute Chagas may last for weeks or months and is the only time when medical treatment with anti-parasitic medications are usually successful. Acute infections will appear as a nasty "bug bite" but may also be mild or even asymptomatic.

Chronic Chagas is a lifetime condition. About 20 to 30 percent of those with chronic Chagas may suffer serious health effects while the remainder may be symptom free. The parasite can create serious problems with heart rhythms leading to sudden death. It can also affect the heart's ability to pump blood, causing congestive heart failure. A patient may also have their gastrointestinal tract attacked, interfering with eating or defecation.

The CDC believes that at least 300,000 Americans carry the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite. The agency considers Chagas one of several neglected tropical diseases that it is focusing on. Infection occurring in the United States is rare and most of those who are ill contracted Chagas in those areas of Central and South America where the disease is endemic.

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