Of the 20 locally-acquired cases of Chagas disease in 2016 in Texas, Bexar County had the most. Chagas disease is caused by a parasite carried by kissing bugs. This rare condition is now catching the attention of the local medical community.
Of all of the backyard threats we hear about…fire ants, mosquitoes carrying Zika…there’s a little-known insect also carrying a potentially deadly parasite. In Texas, we call them kissing bugs -- black beatle-looking insects with orange stripes -- blood suckers looking for a meal.
"And they’re everywhere," said Paula Stigler-Granados, Ph.D., MSPH, an assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in San Antonio with the Texas Chagas Taskforce. It's based in San Antonio and was created two years ago with support from the Centers for Disease Control.
"It’s quite possible that we have a higher prevalence of the disease than we know of but nobody’s really getting tested," Stigler-Granados speculated.
Chagas disease is more common in Latin America. It’s not the actual bite of the bug that spreads the disease, but the feces from the bug as it defecates while it’s biting you that spreads the parasite names T. cruzi. The risk of heart or intestinal problems later in life is about 30 percent.
Suburban sprawl means you are more likely to come in contact with a kissing bug, according to Rachel Curtis-Robles with the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine.
"In our lab, we’ve received over 5,000 bugs from the public in the last three years. We’ve tested about 1500 to 2000 of them. And we found that overall, about 50 to 60 percent of the bugs we test are infected," Curtis-Robles explained.
Donated blood has been screened for Chagas since 2013.That’s how most South Texans find out they have it. One in every 42-hundred donated pints is infected.
However, finding a doctor to test and treat the disease can be difficult. Jonathon Crews, MD, of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio says at first, most people don’t have any symptoms.
"The parasite can live in your body for ten, twenty, thirty years before you develop a disease from the infection," Crews said. "The goal of treatment is to prevent the development of heart disease in the future. We’re still learning about which patients should be tested."
Candace Stark of LaGrange, Texas, near Bastrop, was shocked when she was diagnosed with Chagas disease four years ago. "I was frightened of what was going to happen to me," she said. "I didn’t know if it was going to kill me at the time because everything I’d read was terrible."
Stark even upped her life insurance, believing her long-term survival was in danger. She found a doctor to treat her -- someone willing to acquire the anti-parasitic medicines through the CDC in Atlanta. The drugs aren’t readily available in the U.S.
Stark says she thinks Americans need a more global view of the disease which is no longer just a concern south of the border. "What people knew about the disease is, you know, it was in Latin America where there are mud houses. I don’t live in a mud house," she added.
As part of their quest to keep this infection at bay, the Texas Chagas Taskforce is reaching out to the medical community to encourage more screening."We’ve had quite a few people reach out to us and say ‘I have been asking my doctor to test me for Chagas and they won’t test me.’ I say give them a test. It doesn’t hurt. It’s not expensive," Stigler-Granados stated.
In the meantime, people who spend a lot of time outdoors – hunters, campers, members of the military – should watch out for kissing bugs and their bites. If you know you’ve been bitten, you can ask for testing. Researchers are trying to develop a Chagas disease vaccine, but there isn’t one yet.