The Hidden Threat: The Kissing Bug

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These seven tropical diseases are closer to home than you think. Lurking in your Dallas-area backyard is Chagas disease, caused by a parasite that infects more than 300,000 Americans. The disease can cause heart failure and death in humans and dogs and is often missed by doctors.

Or maybe you live near a typhus hot spot such as Houston? Spread by rat-biting fleas, typhus causes headaches, fever, chills and a rash.

Farther north, close to the Oklahoma border, Texans have been plagued by skin boils and sores caused by a disease called leishmaniasis — also known as the Baghdad boil. Many have suffered for years because doctors have misdiagnosed them with staph infections and given them the wrong treatment.

You’ve already heard of West Nile virus, another tropical disease that has strong-armed its way into Texas. West Nile virus has infected close to 5,000 Texans since 2002. But the real number of humans infected is probably 25,000, since about 80 percent of people who are infected don’t show symptoms.

Now get ready to meet two new tropical diseases on their way to you. Dengue and chikungunya are viruses spread by mosquitoes. Common in the Caribbean and South America, they’re being lured to the U.S. by a combination of rising temperatures and poverty.

Don’t expect your doctor to save you from these tropical diseases. Medical students spend a few days learning about this group of infections, and studies show that many health care providers in Texas and the U.S. are unaware that these infections are here or on their way.

Americans living with diseases such as Chagas can go undiagnosed for many years, by which time the infection can cause irreversible damage to the heart.

Dr. Seema Yasmin’s reporting on this project was undertaken while she was a National Health Journalism Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism. Yasmin, a physician and former CDC epidemiologist, is a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Not just tropical

Kissing Bug

Chagas disease

About: A parasite spread by the blood-sucking kissing bug — so-called because the bug likes to bite us on the face around the lips and eyes. Kissing bugs poop where they eat, and when we scratch the bite, we rub the poop and the parasite into our skin. About a third of people infected with the parasite, called Trypanosoma cruzi, develop heart disease. One in 10 suffer digestive or nerve issues.

 

Spread by: The dime-sized kissing bug, which lives in rats’ nests and wood piles and in the nooks of furniture and cracks in homes.

 

Symptoms: Swollen eyelids, breathing problems, chest pain, heart failure, death.

 

Testing: Blood test.

Treatment: Anti-parasitic drugs that can be 60 percent to 85 percent effective if given early.

 

Illustrations by Troy Oxford/The Dallas Morning News

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