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Sealed With a Kiss: Chagas Disease and North Americans



You may be as strong as a muscle car and feel like you’re made from Dynacorn parts, but if you received a “kiss” from a small South American bug, you could be at risk for fatal heart problems.

Chagas disease kills 14,000 people a year and affects 10 to 15 million people a year. Once confined to Central and South America, the condition is increasingly diagnosed in North America, Australia, Europe, and even Japan.

The Kissing Bug

Chagas disease originates with an inch-long critter known in South America and Mexico as the “kissing bug” for its habit of feeding on sleeper’s faces. The bug is most common in rural areas, where it spends the day hiding in homes made from adobe, mud, and thatch.

At night the bug emerges to feed on blood, biting the face to eat and then defecating over the bite. Parasites in the bug’s fecal matter then enter the victim’s bloodstream through the wound or mucous membranes.

Symptoms of Chagas

Chagas disease can lie dormant for years. Early symptoms include aches, diarrhea, fatigue, fever, headaches, loss of appetite, swollen eyelids, and vomiting. Some people display no signs at all for decades. Years after infection, the disease causes severe intestinal problems and heart failure.

Why Has Chagas Spread?

The bug that causes Chagas disease has not spread, although changing global temperatures could increase the insect’s range. Chagas is a blood-borne disease, however, and can spread through blood transfusions, organ donations, and contaminated food. Mothers can pass the parasite on to children during pregnancy.

While exact numbers are difficult to determine, the Centers for Disease Control estimates 300,000 people live with Chagas disease in the United States, many of them with no idea they’ve been infected. Many people discover they carry Chagas disease after giving blood. People of Latin American descent have a higher than usual risk of the disease: one out of 300 blood donors in Los Angeles County test positive for Chagas.

Treatment Options

Medication can kill the Chagas parasite. Treatment is most effective when administered soon after infection.

Lack of awareness about Chagas, coupled with vague symptoms, often means the disease goes untreated until it reaches its later stages. Advanced cases of Chagas may require pacemakers to alleviate heart complications.

How Worried Should You Be?

Unless you traveled to Central or South America, chances are you probably haven’t come into contact with the kissing bug directly. If you received blood transmissions or organ donations and develop symptoms similar to those caused by infection with the Chagas parasite, you should ask your health care provider about getting tested for Chagas. Rather like replacing a car part or Mustang suspensions, sooner is better than later when it comes to Chagas diagnosis.