If done properly, kisses aren’t often considered deadly.
Just don’t try it on a kissing bug.
Chagas Disease is a tropical disease spread by kissing bugs carrying the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite. These bugs are so called because they usually bite victims around the mouth during the night.
The insects then transfer the parasite to their host, either through defecating at the bite site or infecting mucus membranes. It may take weeks or longer for symptoms to appear, according to the Mayo Clinic website.
A 2014 CBS 11 news report on kissing bugs lead to viewers throughout North Texas reporting sightings of the bugs. Reports came in from cities including Arlington, Fort Worth, Grapevine, Keller and Grand Prairie.
Perhaps the most recognizable human symptom is swelling of the eyelid on the side of the infection site — something called the Romana sign, epidemiology professor Susan Cherry said.
However, almost all other symptoms are vague, including fever, fatigue, body aches, headaches and swelling of the infection site.
There is no treatment for Chagas Disease. Blood donations are usually tested for tropical diseases, but with blood screening not required, most people don’t know they have it until they are contacted by testing labs.
It was the threat to dogs that caught Cherry’s attention.
Cherry breeds West Highland Terriers and believes the death of one of her dogs last year was because of Chagas.
“I had her put to sleep,” she said.
Cherry’s lectures include units on insect-borne illnesses, but Chagas was not one of them.
After NBC 5 reported on the disease in November, Cherry started researching Chagas and discussing it with her students.
In 2014, Texas A&M University released a study through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reporting 1-in-10 shelter dogs in Texas tested positive for Chagas Disease.
The report also states that 8 million people across Mexico, Central and South America have been affected by the illness.
Integrative biology professor Sahotra Sharkar of UT-Austin published a study in 2010 on the spread of Chagas Disease.
When he began studying Chagas 15 years ago, Sharkar said he knew it was a matter of time before it was discovered in the United States.
“I realized that in Texas, there was quite likely a lot of Chagas that was not being recognized,” he said.
His research involved trapping kissing bugs with the help of UV light and carbon dioxide. They then stored the bugs in alcohol and extracted the parasite responsible for the disease.
Reports of Chagas cases in North and Central Texas have not surprised Sharkar. He said Chagas has only now been discussed because it became reportable in 2013.
This means state and federal law requires doctors and labs to report all diagnoses. This is usually because the illness poses a great public health risk.
History junior David Edwards was surprised there is no treatment for the infection.
Edwards believes America’s status as a superpower ensures Americans will be among the first patients treated once a cure is discovered.
“I feel like we would make it first,” he said.
Another possible source of infection is contaminated meat.
“Oral transmission of Chagas is very, very common,” Sharkar said.
Once ingested, Cherry said cases in southern regions have shown patients lose their ability to eat.
“They are trying to treat it with antiparasitics,” Cherry said of recent diagnoses. “From what I understand, it can manage some of the symptoms, but it doesn’t kill the parasite.”
Sharkar said the public should be vigilant in taking preventative measures against kissing bugs. Such measures include making sure houses or tents are insect-proof and having blood screenings.
Cherry said she encourages her nursing students to listen to the news and share their medical knowledge with loved ones.
Spreading knowledge is something Cherry said is a nurse’s obligation to society.
“You can’t just hold this knowledge in, you’ve got to scare the heck out of people,” she said, laughing.