March 28, 2016 |by Susan Abram | Daily News, Los Angeles
This insect bites people near the lips or eyes, inserts bacteria, then about 20 years later, the victim suffers a heart attack. Olive View-UCLA Medical Center is working to help detect Chagas. The clinic is holding community screenings across the San Fernando Valley to find people who may be infected.
Some call it the kissing bug because it leaves a painless bite near a sleeping person’s lips.
But among health experts, including those from the federal government, the cone-headed Triatomine is no prince awakening a sleeping beauty. It’s an assassin, because it leaves behind a parasite in its love bite that can be deadly.
Photos of the dime-size insect hang inside Dr. Sheba Meymandi’s medical office as if on a wanted poster. The bug, she said, carries the Chagas disease, which can cause heart failure if left untreated.
An estimated 300,000 people across the United States may have Chagas disease, Meymandi said, and the only place in the nation where it’s treated is the clinic she oversees at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar. Started in 2007, the Chagas clinic has treated 200 people, but Meymandi and her team said they are ready to take on more patients.
That’s why she and her staff are working with primary physicians at the four hospitals and 19 health clinics overseen by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. In addition, Providence Health & Services will offer Chagas screenings at a dozen free health clinics on Sundays at churches across the San Fernando Valley for the rest of the year. An upcoming screening will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. April 3 at New Hope of the Nazarene, 15055 Oxnard St, Van Nuys, California.
“It’s very clear that we need to diagnose early and treat early before the onset of complications,” said Meymandi, a cardiologist. Ten percent of those with Chagas suffer from heart failure, one of the most expensive conditions to treat, costing $32 billion year nationwide, she said. That figure could rise to $70 billion by 2030.
Chagas disease was once considered exotic, but more is known about it now than about the Zika virus. Still, most people have no idea they have it or, once they do, lack information about where to receive treatment, Meymandi said.
The disease is most common in rural Mexico and Latin America, researchers have said, adding that it kills more people in South America than malaria.Meymandi said anyone who was born in Mexico or South America should have a blood test.
But U.S.-born residents also are infected. The insect is present in more than 20 states. At least 40 percent of raccoons tested in Griffith Park carried Chagas disease, Meymandi said.
“Most of the people we see and treat in the U.S. have had it for decades,” Meymandi said. “We have the bug here, we have the parasite here. You can definitely acquire Chagas in the United States.”
An infected insect, which hides in dwellings made from mud, adobe, straw or palm thatch, crawls out at night to feed on blood. It is called the kissing bug because it feeds on a sleeper’s face, then defecates on the wound, leaving a parasite behind.
Infection takes place when the parasite enters the body through mucous membranes or broken skin, caused when the sleeper scratches the wound, eyes or mouth, according to the federal Centers for Disease and Prevention. The parasite can lie dormant for years, then cause heart disease, and if not found and treated, death.
Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, body aches, headaches, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting. But sometimes there are no symptoms until decades later.
Only two drugs exist to treat Chagas disease, and neither is approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration yet, though both can be provided through the CDC, Meymandi said.
“It’s very simple to treat,” Meymandi said. “But the process to go get the drugs is a challenge.”
Jose Duran, a Bellflower resident, said he learned he had Chagas disease after he tried to donate blood seven months ago. He said he would have never known he had Chagas disease otherwise. He had no symptoms.
“I went to donate blood for the first time, because I heard it was good for you to donate once in a while,” he said. Then he received a phone call.
It’s not uncommon for people to learn they have Chagas disease after donating blood, Meymandi and others said. In 2006, the Red Cross isolated 21 cases of Chagas in Southern California donors. In 2007, the figure more than doubled to 46. In 2008, there were 55 cases.
The National Red Cross would not provide additional figures.
“I got scared. I was like, wow, what is this?” the 40 year old Duran said of his reaction,when he learned what he had.
As a child, Duran lived on a ranch in Querétaro, a small state in north-central Mexico. His brother also tested positive for Chagas. He doesn’t remember being bitten, he said.
Duran was referred to the Chagas clinic and, after two months of treatment, learned Thursday he was in good health.
“Most people don’t know they have this,” he said. “If they get tested, they can get well.”