A new study from researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) reveals a parasite that is responsible for causing Chagas Disease is widespread in some insects in the state of Texas. The discovery indicates that more Texas residents are at a higher risk of getting the disease than once thought.
In the Americas, the transmission of the disease is vector-borne with a triatomine bug, a kissing bug, serving as the carrier of the disease. The cause of Chagas disease is Trypanosoma cruzi or T. cruzi. Humans become sick through exposure to the latter parasite when a blood-sucking kissing bug or assassin bug transmits it. The transmission of the parasite is not through a bite, however; at least, not directly. Instead, kissing bugs’ droppings come in contact with a victim’s skin near the bite wound coming from the kissing bug. The infected feces enter the wound and bloodstream where it eventually renders effects on the gastrointestinal system and heart.
Biologists at UTEP wanted to find out the prevalence of Trypanosoma cruzi in the bugs in west Texas. Traps were set up at UTEP’s Indio Mountains Research Station to capture the bugs serving as carriers for the parasite. The station’s location is approximately 100 miles north of the border between the United States and Mexico in Texas’ Hudspeth County. The location is ideal because of parasite’s prevalence in Latin American regions. According to the World Health Organization, nearly seven million people are infected with Chagas disease, with the majority of those residing in Latin America. Nevertheless, the disease has now traveled outside the boundaries of Latin America and to other countries. Chagas disease is a treatable condition, provided the infection is treated shortly following disease initiation.
The team of biologists, including Munir H. Buhaya, Steven Galvan, and Associate Professor Rosa A. Maldonado, all from UTEP’s Department of Biological Sciences, managed to capture 39 Triatoma rubida. Follow testing; the team found 24 out of the 39 captured insects were infected with the parasite responsible for causing Chagas disease. The team’s findings are published in the July 2015 issue of the journal Acta Tropica. Ultimately, 61 percent of all the insects captured are carriers of T. cruzi.
Professor Maldonado, who headed the study, was surprised by the high number of infected insects. She also explained that there is a higher rate of cardiovascular disease all along the border and suggests a possible connection with the elevated heart disease rate with the presence and prevalence of Chagas disease. As many as 30 percent of those infected with T. cruzi end up with symptoms like difficulty eating, passing stools, and heart rhythm abnormalities. Additional symptoms of the disease include the enlargement of the heart, colon, esophagus, and sometimes heart failure. Household pets like cats and dogs are also vulnerable.
Physicians do not immediately jump to the diagnosis of Chagas disease when the disease’s symptoms occur. A higher prevalence of the parasite causing the condition is not just cause for concern, but also an indication that physicians need to be on the lookout for the higher likelihood of the presence of Chagas disease in their patients.
Chagas disease is so named after the Brazilian physician of the same name who discovered the disease in the early 1900s. The disease has two phases, acute and chronic. As per information shared by the World Health Organization, during the acute stage less than 50 percent of the infected will have any visible signs of the illness. Others will present with chest pain, abdominal discomfort, swelling, problems breathing, muscular pain, pallor, enlarged lymph glands, headaches, fever, a purplish swelling in one eyelid, and skin lesions. The acute phase of the disease lasts for about two months following the initial infection. Later, in the chronic phase of the disease, the parasites remain hidden in the digestive and heart muscles. After years of carrying the parasite in the body, sudden death due to heart failure is possible as the muscles in the heart are destroyed over time.
The disease is treatable once diagnosed, with the use of nifurtimox and benznidazole, both of which prove 100 percent effective against the disease. However, the medication is only 100 percent successful if the infection is treated during the acute stage. The longer the person is infected, the less likely the medication is to work.