First Discovery of Kissing Bugs in Delaware Raises Concerns About Chagas Disease

Scientists are concerned about the first discovery of kissing bugs in Delaware carrying a parasite capable of causing serious heart problems or even death if not treated promptly. This finding is particularly alarming due to the significant population of these large black and orange insects in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Last July, a New Castle County resident found a kissing bug on their pillow while getting ready for bed. Three months later, they found another similar bug on a cookie sheet in their kitchen. Both bugs were the same size, shape, and color.

Key Points of Kissing Bugs:

  1. Chagas Disease Vector
    Kissing bugs are vectors of a parasite that causes Chagas disease, which can lead to serious heart problems. Jennifer K. Peterson, an assistant professor and medical entomologist at the University of Delaware, is studying kissing bugs in Delaware after two were discovered in homes in the northern part of the state.
  2. Species Identification
    University of Delaware entomologists found both insects to be kissing bugs of the species Triatoma sanguisuga, carrying the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease. “It’s not surprising that it was infected,” said Peterson. “It’s more of a wake-up call that this bug needs to be studied.”
  3. Global Impact
    Chagas disease is estimated to affect 6-7 million people worldwide. The parasitic infection causes flu-like symptoms shortly after infection and a years-long phase of quiet reproduction in the host’s tissues.
  4. Transmission Risk
    Kissing bugs infected with T. cruzi transmit the parasite through their excrement. The chances of a kissing bug biting someone, then pooping on the bite and passing on the parasite are slim. However, Peterson notes, “The more times you roll the dice, the more likely you are to get the most unlikely combination.”

Studies in other parts of the U.S. have discovered that 30-60% of kissing bugs are infected, according to UD researchers, who detailed the discovery of the two kissing bugs in a new paper published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Historical Presence

Peterson said kissing bugs are likely native to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and have been around for thousands of years, but they’re understudied in the region. She also wasn’t surprised to find two kissing bugs in the same area months apart, as they tend to live in natural areas driven by food.

“If there is not enough food in the forest and a kissing bug sees some twinkling lights coming from someone’s house, it’s going to fly in and see if there is a meal,” she said.

Testing and Awareness

The homeowner waited months to get tested for T. cruzi antibodies and eventually tested negative for Chagas disease. This case highlights a systemic gap that needs attention, Peterson said. “The bugs are here,” she adds. “They’re making contact with people. This paper was written to illustrate that there is a hole in the system.”

Research Goals:

  • Determine the Location
    Researchers aim to pinpoint where kissing bugs are located.
  • Understand Their Diet and Breeding Grounds
    Identifying what kissing bugs eat and where they breed is crucial.
  • Prevalence of T. cruzi Infection
    Understanding how widespread the parasite infection is among kissing bugs is essential.

Public Safety Measures

“I hesitate to say that people need to be concerned or worried,” Peterson said. “Rather, I am a proponent of arming oneself with knowledge.” Peterson aims to develop an easily accessible resource for the public to refer to if they encounter a kissing bug.

“It could be something like an app or public awareness campaign that can ensure that people can quickly get the information or help they need if they come into contact with one of these insects,” Peterson said.

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