The kissing bug, whose scientific name is the triatomine bug, is nowhere near as harmless and friendly as its name suggests. Its nickname refers to the wounds it leaves behind, mostly around the lips and nose, because they naturally flock towards carbon dioxide which we exhale as we breathe.
These nocturnal, blood-sucking bugs are known for biting people at night while they sleep. However, their bite isn’t what makes them deadly. Their feces, which can carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, leads to an infection called Chagas Disease. The disease has two stages: the early stage where the symptoms are fever, body aches, rashes and vomiting, and the advanced stage which can cause heart swelling and colon problems.
The disease is most common in South and Central America, but over the past couple of years more and more cases are being reported in Texas. As of 2014, over 300,000 people living in the US are affected by Chagas Disease, most of which were acquired while travelling to the countries affected by the disease.
50% of kissing bugs carry the T. Cruzi parasite. According to the Houston Chronicle, a lot of domestic animals, including dogs, have been tested positive for Chagas Disease. Animals that have been infected with the parasite aren’t contagious to humans, but they can serve as pools of the disease where healthy kissing bugs pick up the parasite and then spread it to humans.
Because the early symptoms of a kissing bug bite resemble the flu, most cases go unnoticed until it’s too late. Like with Lyme disease and AIDS, a person can live with the disease for years before it’s detected. Once the heart disease and colon problems kick in, it’s too late to do anything about it.
While there are no vaccines or drugs available to prevent Chagas Disease, there are a lot of preventative measures people can take. When travelling to areas affected by the disease, the CDC recommends that they sleep indoors, seal cracks in windows and wear protective clothing if they go camping to rural areas.
Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine said that they believed Charles Darwin died of Chagas Disease. They believe that he contracted the disease during his five year trip aboard the HMS Beagle, on which he travelled around the globe when he was in his 20s. Charles Darwin eventually died of heart failure at age 47.