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'Kissing bug' an insect lover's parasite

USA TODAY

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting sightings of the “kissing bug” in several states, including the Carolinas, Georgia and Texas. But don’t pucker up — this insect’s love bite could be deadly.

Typically found in the southern USA, Mexico, Central America and South America, the kissing bug — properly named a triatomine bug — can carry a parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, that causes Chagas disease.

Chagas is one of a handful of parasitic diseases the CDC is targeting for public health efforts in the USA — it’s not a disease confined only to the poor, rural or underdeveloped areas in which it thrives. The CDC estimates that about 300,000 people in the USA live with Chagas. Most of them acquired the disease in countries where the disease is common.

Named for the Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, who discovered the disease in 1909, it kills silently and slowly. According to researchers at Texas A&M University, kissing bugs feed on blood during the night. They get their name because they often bite humans around the mouth or eyes.

Symptoms often include pain in the stomach or swelling where the person has been bitten. "One of the major symptoms is sudden death," Anil Mangla, assistant director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, told KENS-TV.

Mangla noted that Chagas is a disease that lodges itself in tissue and muscle. A person can go as long as 20 years before Chagas takes its toll, as it can lead to heart disease.

The CDC says it’s not easy for a kissing bug to pass Chagas disease to humans. A person can get Chagas from a kissing bug only if the insect’s feces get into the bite wound. Laura Bellinger, a health communication specialist from the CDC's Center for Global Health, said in a email Tuesday that transmission of the parasite from triatomine bugs to humans in the USA has been recorded only in California, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas.

According to Wake Forest University entomologist Bill Conner, the bugs are very rare. In North Carolina, people often confuse kissing bugs with wheel bugs.

"What you see in your yard is likely a wheel bug, which are very common in North Carolina," Conner told WFMY-TV. "Wheel bugs are harmless."

Universities around the country are studying Chagas disease to educate people and find new treatments. A person in the USA who contracts the disease must be treated through the CDC because the medications aren’t FDA-approved, KENS reported.

WXIA-TV reported that this year, the Wellcome Trust awarded more than $5 million toUniversity of Georgia researcher Rick Tarleton to help develop a new treatment for Chagas disease, according to UGA's Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. According to the center, Chagas disease kills more people in Latin America than any other parasitic disease.

In September, the CDC granted researcher Paula Stigler-Granados of the University of Texas School of Public Health in San Antonio a five-year, $544,329 grant to start a first-of-its-kind task force in Texas to educate people about the disease, KENS reported.

Where they hide

The CDC says these bugs can live in cracks and holes indoors and in outdoor spaces including:

•Beneath porches

•Between rocky structures

•Under cement

•In rock, wood, brush piles or beneath bark

•In rodent nests or animal burrows

•In outdoor dog houses or kennels

•In chicken coops or houses

Keep them out

To keep these bugs away from you home, the CDC suggests:

•Sealing cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs and doors

•Removing wood, brush and rock piles near your house

•Using screens on doors and windows and repairing any holes or tears

•If possible, making sure yard lights are not close to your house (lights can attract the bugs)

•Sealing holes and cracks leading to the attic, crawl spaces below the house and to the outside

•Having pets sleep indoors, especially at night

•Keeping your house and any outdoor pet resting areas clean and periodically checking for the presence of bugs

If you think you've found a triatomine bug, the CDC advises that you don’t touch or squash it. Instead, put a container around the bug, slide it inside and either fill the container with rubbing alcohol or freeze it. They suggest taking the bug to your health department or extension service, so it can be properly identified. You can also contact the CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria (parasites@cdc.gov) for species identification and testing.

Find more information about Chagas disease at the CDC's website.

Contributing: WFMY-TV, Greensboro; WXIA-TV, Atlanta; KENS-TV, San Antonio
USA TODAY

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