Chagas Disease: Public Warned About Health Risk After a Dozen Get Infected

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.
November 17, 2015 Updated: November 17, 2015

The public is being warned that people living or traveling to Texas could contract the “kissing bug” disease.

The Chagas disease is spread through a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. The bugs are known as “kissing bugs” because they usually bite people on the thin skin around the eyes or mouth, often when they’re asleep, reported WebMD.

“But the bug’s bite isn’t what causes the infection — it’s their poop. If a bug bites an infected animal or person, it becomes a carrier of T. cruzi, which is passed through its feces. The next time the bug feeds on a person, it leaves droppings on them, which can enter that person’s body through their eyes, nose, mouth, or the wound from the bite itself,” it explained.

People can also get the parasite by eating meat from an infected animal or getting a blood transfusion or organ transplant from an infected person.


State health officials tell #NBC5Investigates Kissing Bugs have infected at least a dozen Texans with a parasite that…

Posted by NBC DFW on Monday, November 16, 2015

Hidden Danger

State health officials told NBC that at least a dozen people have been infected, but the media company says not enough is being done to warn people about Chagas.

“Many Texas researchers are concerned, but statements from the federal government seem to barely acknowledge people are being infected here,” it said. The disease is rarely seen outside the tropics.

Candace Stark, who has never left the U.S., found out she had the disease after donating blood in 2013. Her doctors had barely heard of Chagas. Stark found a bug in the closet of her parent’s house in LaGrange, and Texas A&M researchers confirmed it was a kissing bug.

Since then, the researchers and others have been receiving bugs from all over the state. 

“During peak season, we get bugs sent to us every day, multiple packages and every package can have one to 10 bugs, or even more,” said Texas A&M researcher, Sarah Hamer.

Shocking Discovery

Ed Wozniak, a researcher with the Texas Department of State Health, launched his own search for the bugs, and found a huge number–500.

“I was shocked by it. I never anticipated being able to get anything close to that,” said Wozniak.

Experts say the bugs are proliferating because more and more rural land is being turned into suburbs.

Most of the kissing bugs tested by researchers at Baylor Medical Schools in Houston not only have the Chagas parasite, but most have human blood in their bellies–showing they’ve already bitten people.


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Posted by Izzy Collier on Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Little Done

But NBC said public health officials aren’t treating the emergence serious enough, barely mentioning the bugs in public.

The CDC, for one, wants to study the issue more before getting word out.

“I think it’s a question that needs a lot more study and the group out of Baylor in Houston is looking at exactly that. What are the risks for acquiring Chagas disease in Texas,” Dr. Susan Montgomery told NBC.

The article was produced with Dallas News after four months of investigation.

Symptoms and Treatment

WebMD says the disease has two phases, with mild symptoms appearing in the first phase possibly including a rash, a sore, vomiting, diarrhea, or loss of appetite, swollen eyelids, and flu-like symptoms.

The early symptoms fade after a few weeks or months, but the parasite remains in the body.

The second phase, particularly in weak people, can be deadly. The parasite can cause big heart problems, like heart failure.

Treatment is done with one of two drugs, better taken soon after infection–enznidazole and nifurtimox. The drugs are only available through the CDC.