A statement released this week by the American Heart Association (AHA) said it’s a growing threat.
Health experts are warning that the potentially lethal parasitic disease spread by ‘kissing bugs’ has taken hold in the US, with more than 300,000 Americans contracting it.
The kissing bug disease doesn’t sound so threatening, but the name does not do it justice. Its medical name is Chagas disease, and if gone untreated the complications can lead to heart failure and sudden death.
These bloodsucking bugs, called triatomine bugs, spread a parasitic illness called Chagas disease. Left untreated, Chagas causes serious cardiac or intestinal complications in patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Chagas disease is a nasty parasitic illness spread by bites from bloodsucking triatomine bugs.
- These bugs climb on people’s faces at night to feed, biting eyes and lips, which is why they’re sometimes called “kissing bugs.”
- If the disease is not treated, 30% of patients can develop potentially life-threatening heart complications, but many people don’t show signs of infection.
- A new statement by the American Heart Association says doctors in the US and Europe need to do a better job recognizing the disease since it’s becoming more common.
Here is what you need to know about the disease.advertisement - story continues below
ABC News reports:
Chagas disease is an infectious disease caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. The parasite spreads to people and animals via the Triatomine bug, an insect that carries the parasite in its feces. It is also known as the kissing bug because it tends to bite humans around the mouth or eyes, usually at night. Parasites enter then make their way in through the bite, rub or scratch.
The disease is most common in Central and South America, but it has also been diagnosed in people in the U.S., Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.
In the U.S., the disease has mostly been reported in southern states but also in Massachusetts. Most people in the U.S. with the disease were likely infected before arriving in the country, according to the American Heart Association.advertisement - story continues below
The parasite can hide in the body for decades.
How does Chagas disease spread?
Most cases of Chagas occur following an insect bite. It can also spread from a pregnant woman to her baby, and through blood transfusion, organ transplantation, consumption of uncooked food contaminated with the feces of infected bugs or accidental laboratory exposure, the CDC said.
Chagas does not spread from person to person through normal contact with people or animals.advertisement - story continues below
Experts also say it’s safe for a mother who has Chagas disease to breastfeed, as long as she does not have blood in the breast milk or cracked nipples.
What are the signs, symptoms and long-term health impact of Chagas disease?
Initial symptoms may include fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, and rash. There can also be local swelling where the bite happened and the parasite entered the body. These symptoms usually go away in days to weeks. Rarely, young children can develop severe inflammation to the heart muscle or brain in the initial phase.
The chronic phase of the disease can occur in about 30 percent of infected people and involve cardiac complications, including heart rhythm problems, heart muscle malfunction, stroke, cardiac arrest or and even sudden death.
About 70 percent of people do not develop any signs or symptoms, and hence the recent warning asking physicians to be attuned to the disease.
“Chagas disease causes early mortality and substantial disability, which often occurs in the most productive population, young adults, results in a significant economic loss,” said Maria Carmo Pereira Nunes, the doctor and co-chair of the committee that produced the American Heart Association statement in a written comment to ABC News.
What is the treatment?
Chagas disease is treated with anti-trypanosomal medication (nifurtimox or benznidazole), which is only available through CDC.
Who is at risk and how can you minimize risk?
Experts believe that most of about 300,000 people are living with Chagas disease in the U.S. had the infection before arriving in the country.
For people living or traveling in in heavily-affected countries, the World Health Organization recommends avoiding unpasteurized sugar cane juice or acai fruit juice which can be contaminated with insect feces containing the parasite and avoiding houses with unplastered adobe walls or thatch roofs.