Before a few years ago, many Americans had never heard of kissing bugs, let alone the sometimes fatal parasitic infections that these bugs transmit to humans. These airborne insects are officially referred to as triatomine bugs, but they earned their nickname from their habit of landing on people’s faces where they use their mouthparts to suck blood. Of the 130 kissing bug species in the world, only 11 exist within the United States, while most others inhabit Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Kissing bugs spread a disease known as chagas by first biting an animal that is infected with the parasite called T. cruzi. The infected bugs then bite humans while they sleep in order to collect a blood meal, but while they do this, the insects defecate onto human skin, most often the face. The parasitic feces that are left on a human’s face often make contact with mucous membranes or a small wound where the fecal parasites enter the bloodstream, causing chagas disease.
Up until recently, experts believed that disease-causing parasitic kissing bug species were limited to Mexico and South America, but not long ago, several states, such as Arizona, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and recently, Massachusetts began to notice that several US natives had acquired the parasitic disease. It is believed that infected immigrants brought the disease into southern states, but after the disease was found in Massachusetts, experts believe that local transmission cases are now occurring in the US. However, some experts are claiming that infected kissing bugs do not exist in Massachusetts, while others insist that infected bugs are present within the state.
There exists 300,000 US citizens who are infected with chagas disease, but the vast majority of these individuals contracted the disease while visiting Latin America, but at least 30 local infections have been discovered in the US. All states where infections have been found are now monitoring the spread of the disease for public health purposes, except for Massachusetts, which stopped gathering data on chagas disease back in 2014. Therefore, no further infections have been found in the state, but that does not mean that infected kissing bugs don’t exist in Massachusetts. However, the chances are rare that a Massachusetts resident will acquire the disease through contact with infected kissing bug feces. In fact, US kissing bug species are more of a nuisance, as they can enter homes through cracks in a foundation, and they can be found hiding near pets and other indoor animals.
Do you worry about contracting chagas disease?