Kissing Bug of Death

Traveling invites all sorts of new parasites and diseases into your body from drinking untreated water, getting bitten by creepy crawlies, eating pig brains or a variety of other ridiculous travelling circumstances that backpackers stupidly put their bodies through.  Chagas disease is yet another to put on my list of conditions to avoid.

Torah Kachur Kissing Bug Chagas Disease Assassin bug Science in Seconds

There is currently a surge of Chagas disease in Argentina with it affecting rural populations. Chagas disease is transmitted by the kissing bug, and even though ‘Kissing Bugs’ sound so goshdarn cute, they carry a parasite that can lead to a lethal infection. The kissing bug – or Triatominae spp. – are transmittors of the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi that reproduces inside the insect host and waits patiently for an innocent human to get bitten by the Love Bug or Kissing Bug or Evil Assassin Bug.  The parasite enters the blood when humans scratch the itch of the Kissing Bug….. ahem….. scratching the actual bite and not any other ‘itch’ that would come from kissing.

Once inside the blood, the parasite can either hang out in the blood and cause an acute sickness that is easily treated with antibiotics or, worse, enter the tissues where they reproduce into pseudocysts of infected cells.  In someone affected by Chagas disease symptoms may include constipation, trouble swallowing and abdominal discomfort which might be mistaken for the consequences of a late night binge to MacDonald’s.  But, this is a sign of infection of the parasite into the tissues of the body.
In particular, the Trypanosoma parasite seems to have the most acute effects on the heart (maybe that is why the insect is called the Kissing bug?).  The entry and replication of the parasite into the cells of the host cause lesions and inflammation meaning that the valves, neurons and muscle cells of the heart are irreparably damaged over years.  Only after 10-20 years will possibly cause arrythmias that is the most common cause of death from Chagas.
The kissing bug lives in thatched or palm leaf roof houses and mud-brick structures or any structure where crawlies can live and humans are.  New Orleans is experiencing a resurgence of kissing bug infestation in the aftermath of Katrina and the reconstruction efforts including more simple materials.  The types of adobe homes that Triatominae  bugs live in are common across rural South America and Argentina estimates 2.5 million people carry the parasite, thankfully only 25% of those individuals will develop the full disease.  More worrisome is that 3.5% of all expectant mothers carry the parasite which inevitably is transmitted to their newborn wrecking havoc with prevention efforts.

On that note then, I am off to go stay in a lovely adobe hut that creates the true atmosphere of the Argentine wildnerness.  And I only have to wait 20 years to see if I will die of a stupid decision made in my youth.

April 4, 2011 | Torah Kachur | On Location in San Antonio de Areco, Argentina.

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