New Alert Issued for “Kissing Bug” Insects

New Alert Issued for “Kissing Bug” Insects

Do not be fooled by their cutesy given name. Kissing bugs are not kissers. In 2021, the species was widespread (albeit an uncommon sighting) in Delaware. Fast-forward three years, and the deadly disease-vector is a cause for alarm in the diamond state. The finding was ‘a wake-up call’ about the kissing bugs, according to a press release about her recent research with the University of Delaware. ‘The bugs are here. They are interacting with people,’ she stated. Scientists are now sounding the alarm, a dire warning that a single bite could send you to the emergency room.

Researchers at Texas A&M University have identified 11 species of kissing bugs in 26 US states. Kissing-bug sightings and bites are most frequently reported in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. They had largely stayed east of New Jersey and Pennsylvania before 2014.

Earlier this year, one resident of New Castle County in Delaware discovered two kissing bugs within a six-month period, first on her bed pillow, then hiding on a baking sheet in her kitchen. Both were as big around as a penny, black and flattened with orange stripes running along either side of the belly. True to their name, kissing bugs.

This led researchers at the University of Delaware, led by entomologists, to investigate those two bugs – and then, in a paper published this fall in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, they concluded that they were examples of the kissing bug species, Triatoma sanguisuga.

Seeing a strange bug in one’s bed can give almost anyone the creeps, but entomologists who identified the makeshift insects as a species known for harbouring a human parasite confirmed their suspicions – inside the lukewarm kissing bugs lay the eggs of the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi), which causes Chagas disease.

Chagas disease is believed to affect six to seven million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization; and about 55 per cent of kissing bugs studied by the researchers at Texas A&M carry the parasite that causes the disease.

Kissing bugs also bite and stimulate itching, and can defecate on open skin when their blood meal is complete – so they would need to take both an intestinally directed bite and defecate on an open wound, before the person scratched. This is a rare circumstance, but ‘in any process where you roll the dice multiple times’, explains Peterson, ‘the more times your dice get rolled, the more likely you are to roll the most ridiculously unlikely combination.

Some species of kissing bugs actually defecate while feeding; if a person scratches kissing bug poop into the bite, this can lead to infection. Or the parasite can enter the body by mouth or eye, inadvertently, if a person touches her mouth or eye with contaminated hands, Texas Aggies researchers added. ‘Dogs may get infected by eating kissing bugs.’

Chagas disease produces a skin lesion or purplish swelling typically in the area where a bite occurred and flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, muscle pain, swollen lymph glands and breathing problems, for those who are infected.

But worse, Chagas is usually characterised by chronic chest pain. According to WHO, 30 per cent will develop other cardiac complications later on, and heart-related symptoms can begin years after the initial bite.

‘The infection can cause acute death within years, often related to an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or heart failure due to the loss of the heart’s musculature and its nervous supply,’ the agency explains.

‘[The bug] wasn’t going to survive without that infection,’ Peterson said. ‘But it isn’t surprising that it was infected. It’s more of a wake-up call that this bug needs to be the subject of some research.

Peterson believes that the kissing bugs making themselves at home in the Delaware house were looking for a meal. ‘If there isn’t enough food to go around in the forest, and a kissing bug sees some twinkling lights coming out of someone’s house, it’s going to fly in and see if there is a meal.’

That said, Peterson doesn’t think people should be worried about a kissing bug outbreak.

‘I don’t like to encourage people to be afraid or anxious,’ Peterson said. ‘But I believe there is a wisdom in arming oneself’

Any person with a history of being bitten likely by a kissing bug should be evaluated for acute chagas by a physician.

Related Posts