A deadly kiss — Chagas disease, an exotic bug-borne infection that can kill, is spreading in Texas

 A joint investigation from:

Hidden Threat:  The Kissing Bug

Texas

Kissing bugs – so called because they bite us around our eyes and mouth – can be found in rats’ nests and wood piles but also inside our Texas homes.  (Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer)

By Seema Yasmin | Staff Writer; Scott Friedman and Eva Parks | NBC5

If she hadn’t gone to donate blood, Candace Stark wouldn’t have discovered that she harbored a dangerous parasite.

Although she hadn’t left Texas in 20 years, swimming in her blood was a tropical parasite that causes a disease called Chagas.

The parasite buries itself in heart muscle and the gut and can hide for two decades or more before causing symptoms, including sudden death.

Textbooks will tell you that Chagas disease, caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, is a problem for Central and South Americans living in poverty. Eight million to 11 million people are infected worldwide, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

But parasites care little about your bank balance, and although being poor is a risk factor for Chagas disease, the parasite is infecting Texans from all backgrounds.

Chagas is one of about 40 infections known as neglected tropical diseases, so-called because they are largely ignored by governments and drug companies. They infect 1.5 billion people in tropical and subtropical regions of the world.

But neglected tropical diseases are right at home in Texas. Rising temperatures, oblivious doctors and high poverty rates mean seven of these infections are already here or fighting to gain a foothold.

Experts warn that more cases of Chagas and other neglected tropical diseases are being reported in the U.S. An estimated 12 million Americans have one or more tropical infections, including an estimated 300,000 with Chagas disease.In Texas, one in every 6,500 blood donors are infected with Chagas disease, compared with one in every 27,500 donors across the country.

Chances are, if you have it, you don’t know it. That’s because the parasite stays dormant for years and because American doctors are uneducated about the infection.

Chagas disease isn’t new to Texas, and neither is the dime-size kissing bug that spreads the infection. The first case in the U.S. was reported in 1955, and kissing bugs have been spotted in Texas since the early 1800s.

Kissing bugs live in rats’ nests and wood piles or in the nooks of your furniture or cracks in your house. They earned their name by biting us around our eyes and mouth. They poop where they eat, and when you rub the irritated bite, you rub the poop — and the parasite — into your skin. The infection is also spread through blood transfusions, organ transplants and, during pregnancy, from mother to baby.

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