Field of Science

Kissing bug - the real vampire of Latin America

A recent story in the New York Times yesterday not only grabbed my attention, but my Twitter followers too. What have been termed 'neglected tropical diseases' (diseases we usually associate with developing countries) have been seen increasingly in high poverty areas in the US.

To name but a few; Dengue fever (a viral infection transmitted by mosquitos), cysticercosis (epilepys and seizures caused by a tapeworm), toxocariasis (a parasitic infection that causes asthma and neurological problems, murine typhus (a bacterial infection passed by fleas from rodents).

These all sound incredibly horrible on their own, but the worst by far is Chagas disease. This is another parasitic disease transmitted from what is known as the 'kissing bug' - a cockroach-like creature that feeds on human blood! (move over Edward, you and your vampire mates are about to be replaced!).
This is the real 'vampire' of Latin America, however the first death was reported in the US last month.

Poverty is a major risk factor for the parasite that causes the disease, known as Trypanosoma cruzi, which is related to the parasite that causes 'sleeping sickness' in Africa. The disease starts of as a general feeling of unwell, a swollen bite mark and a fever, after which up to 20 years the parasite hides in the heart and digestive tissue - which can end up leading to heart failure and sudden death!

This will probably give me nightmares! The 'kissing bug' taken from:

''The new AIDS of Americas'': Experts warn of deadly insect-borne disease that can cause victims' hearts to explode.

This was the daily mail's take on this back in May with, of course, a very dramatic headline. This was in response to an article published in the PLOS neglected tropical diseases journal which also labels Chagas disease to AIDS which, in my opinion, was so that the authors got some publicity with their 'catchy/sexy' named article. The article however does not even mention 'exploding hearts', only 'heart failure'.
There are some similarities, however, between AIDS and Chagas in the fact that they both have long periods with no symptoms, however Chagas disease is treatable if diagnosed early. So an article saying 'Chagas is the new AIDS' was highly dramatised and irresponsible by the authors as the article was highly interesting and did not need such an extravagant title.

Articles in the Lancet and NATURE back in 2010 indicated that Chagas disease is a worldwide challenge and an emerging health problem in non-epidemic countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also recognised the importance of these neglected tropical diseases at the World Health assembly in May this year.

But why has there been an increase in major poverty areas of the US? Well, no air conditioning creating humid environments, poor street drainage, sanitation, garbage and neglected swimming pools all create lovely conditions for these diseases to thrive. Not only this, these 'forgotten diseases' hit 'forgotten people', who do not often have access to healthcare, creating an even bigger and under-reported problem.

So, the risk to me and you? Incredibly low, however if you live in areas of poverty in America where this 'kissing bug' can thrive then you are at an increased risk, so it is important that you recognise the early symptoms of the disease (see the WHO fact sheet) and seek treatment.

1. The New York Time's article: (accessed 19/08/12)
2. The Daily Mail article: (accessed 19/08/12)
3. Hotez PJ, Dumonteil E, Woc-Colburn L et al. (2012) Chagas Disease: "The new HIV/AIDS of the Americas". PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 6 (5): e1498 (
4. Rassi A and Marin-Neto JA (2010) Chagas Disease. The Lancet. 375 (9723) 1388-1402 (
5. Coura JR, Vinas PA (2010) Chagas disease: a new worldwide challenge. Nature. 465 (S6-S7) (