AUSTIN, TEXAS –The latest threat from the Mexican border isn’t coming from a new homicidal drug cartel or a wave of human smugglers. It’s coming from a blood sucking insect.
University of Texas researchers have found that the kissing bug, which causes Chagas disease, is spreading fast along the Texas-Mexico border. The spread is happening much faster than previously thought, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.
The kissing bug, which is called is called a chinche in Spanish, loves to bites near its victim’s mouth. After dining on the host’s blood, it defecates and that is what contains a deadly parasite. The parasite is absorbed by the host through a cut, an abrasion, scratching or mucous membranes.
The parasite can cause acute heart and digestive problems and eventually leads to death in humans. However, it can take as long as 15 years for these problems to develop, making the disease extremely hard to detect and treat.
According to a new research report by the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, South Texas is a high risk area for the parasite.
“We’ve been studying this for four years now, and this year the number of disease-causing insects is quite amazing,” says Sahotra Sarkar, professor of integrative biology and philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin.
The disease originates in South America, where it’s fairly common. But now it’s moving quickly into Texas and other border states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 8 million and 11 million people are infected, but don’t know it. Of those, an estimated 300,000 live in the U.S. Most of the victims are immigrants.
The symptoms are very similar to the flu and it is extremely difficult to diagnose. The disease is fatal if left untreated.
Doctors in the U.S. are not used to seeing the disease and as a result they don’t look for it. There are also concerns that that the disease can be transmitted through blood transfusions. Currently, blood donations are not tested for the disease.
In Texas, where most doctors are not familiar with the disease and are not required to report it to public health officials, they may misinterpret its late-onset symptoms as an old age problem, says Sarkar.
Until further research is done, Sarkar and his colleagues won’t be able to say for sure how widespread the disease is. They believe the risks are high enough, however, to recommend a few low-cost, low-impact changes to the way the Texas public health system deals with Chagas.