You no longer have to visit the tropics to develop a tropical disease. In one case, you may have to travel only as far as Texas.

Reports of new cases of potentially deadly Chagas disease, which is spread by blood-sucking insects known as “kissing bugs,” have shown up in that state, fueling concerns among health officials that the United States may be increasingly vulnerable to a disease once found mostly south of the border.

Health officials say diseases such as Chagas and dengue fever often go undiagnosed because doctors are unaware of their presence in the United States and mistake them for more common ailments. In most states, these diseases are not reportable to the state departments of health, making them difficult to track.

Kissing bugs have also recently been reported in Georgia.

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Chagas disease on the rise

Chagas disease is prime example of a once-rare disease that seems to be on the upswing here. It’s caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to people through the feces of large insects (ranging from about half an inch to an inch long) known as triatomines, or “kissing bugs.” The nickname comes from the fact that these bugs like to bite people around the mouth and eyes, usually at night.

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Kirstin R.W. Matthews, PhD, a fellow in science and technology policy with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, has interviewed doctors in Texas about the potential threat of Chagas disease in the United States. Most doctors dismissed the danger because they associated the infection with poor villages and houses with thatched roofs, she said.

“It is this idea that this is only going to happen in rural South American countries, and it’s not actually going to happen here,” Matthews told SafeBee. “But we actually did find the bug here with the parasite.”

In 2013 Texas made Chagas disease a reportable condition, one of only three states to do so. Since then, the state has had 39 reported cases, 12 of which it has determined were contracted within Texas.

Tom Sidwa, DVM, manager with the Zoonosis Control Branch of the Texas Department of State Health Services, told SafeBee cases of Chagas are underreported. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) estimates 300,000 people in the United States are infected with it, although most of them are believed to have contracted the disease outside the country.

Where these bugs hang out

According to the CDC, you might find the bugs:

  • Beneath porches
  • Between rocky structures
  • Under cement
  • In rock, wood, brush piles, or beneath bark
  • In rodent nests or animal burrows
  • In outdoor dog houses or kennels
  • In chicken coops or houses

Chagas disease 101

chagas bugYou may not get Chagas disease even if you’re bitten by a “kissing bug,” according to the CDC. But if you rub the area of the bite, the agency notes, you can push parasite-laden feces the bug drops as it feeds into your eye, mouth or bloodstream and become infected.

Initially there may be irritation around the bite and flu-like symptoms. Sometimes children will have one eyelid that is grossly swollen, a sign of acute Chagas disease infection, according to the CDC.

Chagas disease can remain dormant for decades, and many people will never develop symptoms. However, the CDC notes 20 to 30 percent of people will develop debilitating and sometimes life-threatening symptoms, such as brain inflammation, an enlarged esophagus or colon or enlargement of the heart that can lead to heart failure.

There are no approved drugs available for the disease. For now, surveillance and prevention are the best ways to combat the disease, according to the CDC. (Photo: CDC)

What you can do

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, here are some steps you can take.

  • Find out what the bugs look like so you can recognize them
  • Eliminate clutter around your home that might serve as hiding places, such as woodpiles against a house.
  • Make sure the window screens on your home are intact.
  • Turn off outdoor lights at night so as not to attract the bugs, and use yellow porch lights rather than white lights.
  • Check bedding of both humans and pets.
  • To prevent the disease in dogs, keep your pooch from eating bugs, keep water bowls and food dishes inside and keep your dog indoors at night.

If you live in the south (especially Texas) or west and have been bitten by a large dark-colored bug, don’t squash it. Follow these recommendations from the CDC. Try to capture it and send it to the CDC for testing.

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Daniel S. Levine is an award-winning journalist who heads the Levine Media Group and hosts The Bio Report and RARECast podcasts. He was an editor of The Burrill Report and worked for the Oakland Tribune, Adweek, the San Francisco Business Times and other publications.