In July of 2013, 49-year-old Candace Stark donated blood in honor of her mother who had leukemia. Seven weeks later – she received a letter from the Blood Centers of Central Texas diagnosing her with Chagas disease.
“It came with a letter that stated I needed to see a healthcare provider and that I couldn’t donate blood any longer,” Stark says.
Chagas is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi – also known as T. cruzi.
Five years later, Stark still isn’t sure how she got the disease, but she thinks it could have been from the bite of a kissing bug. Kissing bugs have dark-colored backs – sometimes with red or orange stripes on their sides. They range from the size of a penny to a quarter.
Stark says she’s never seen a kissing bug at her house – but she did find one at her parents’ house about a year and a half after her diagnosis. It tested positive for the parasite.
“So my thought is, as many times as I’ve spent the night over there, perhaps I was actually dinner for one of those bugs over there,” Stark says.
Dr. Paula Stigler-Granados is a policy and community health expert at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio and leads the Texas Chagas Task Force. It released a guide in June that tells all about the bug, the parasite it carries, and the disease it causes.
“If a person gets bit by a kissing bug that is infected with the parasite – whenever the insect is feeding it will defecate and if the person happens to scratch or itch or rub the feces into the bite wound – that is how people can catch the disease,” Stigler-Granados says.
Chagas can also affect animals. Dogs in kennels or who sleep outdoors are at the highest risk of being bitten by a kissing bug. In 2016, Dripping Springs native Sara Light’s 6-month-old puppy Beretta contracted Chagas.
“We never saw her get bit or anything like that,” she says. “We were outside feeding them and she was running around playing with the other dogs and she just collapsed.”
Her family called their vet to explain what had happened – thinking it was a heatstroke. The vet told them to bring Beretta inside and to give her an ice bath. But it became clear something else was wrong.
“We took her to an emergency vet and then that’s when they told us her heart rate was 350 to 400 beats per minute and that it was probably Chagas,” Light says. “So she got it day one and then two days later she passed away at the vet.”
Light has been collecting kissing bugs at home and at work – a dog boarding and daycare facility – since her puppy passed away. She freezes them and sends them to Texas State University for their research on the insects. Light estimates she’s collected about 50 just this year.
“You have to kind of look for them,” she says. “Sometimes they just appear – sometimes they’re, like, hidden under beds. They’re just kind of everywhere.”
While there’s currently no cure for Chagas, there are anti-parasitic drugs that can treat it with good results. They’re now available to physicians in the US. But, a few years ago, Stark had to petition the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for access.
The best plan of action against kissing bugs is prevention. Move wood piles or brushy areas as far away from your house as possible. Stigler-Granados recommends sealing up cracks in your home and having screens on your windows.
“If there’s anywhere where those large cockroaches can get in from outside, then there’s probably a place where a kissing bug to get in,” she says. “So you wanna seal up as many areas as you can.”
If you find a kissing bug outside, you can send it to Texas A&M University to be tested for the parasite T. cruzi. But if you find a bug inside your house, you should send it to the state health department.
If you’re concerned you’ve been bitten and infected with Chagas, that can be confirmed with a blood test.
In the past several years, there have been 20 human cases of Chagas contracted in Texas. Stigler-Granados and people like Stark and Light who’ve had personal experiences with the disease hope raising awareness about it will prevent physicians from misdiagnosing Chagas and will keep the number of infected from increasing.
Support for Texas Standard’s ”Spotlight on Health” project is provided by St. David’s Foundation.