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Kissing bug carries deadly parasite

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Posted: Jun 28, 2012 5:51 PM by Rosa Flores
Updated: Jun 28, 2012 9:35 PM
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BATON ROUGE -- About 300,000 Americans are carrying a deadly parasite inside their heart and don't even know it. Researchers say the disease -caused by the parasite-- could provide an explanation for 'unexplained' heart disease.

Chagas disease is carried by a tiny bug that has earned the name 'kissing bug.' The blood-sucking critter has been moving into Louisiana for years and making its way to rural living areas.

"For 30 percent of the people we call it the silent killer because 10, 20 or even 30 years later they will die suddenly of heart disease," says Loyola University researcher Dr. Patricia Dorn.

Dr. Dorn has been studying the bug for about 20 years --mostly in Central and South America-- where millions of people are infected. But shortly after Katrina she helped diagnose the first case of Chagas in Louisiana, near New Orleans. Since then, she has collected hundreds of 'kissing bugs' and says that the critters like crawling out at night, biting their victims by the mouth and then defecating on them. The parasite carrying Chagas is in the feces. When victims rub the wound, the parasite gets into the bloodstream and goes directly to the heart. Once there, it triggers unexplained heart issues and ultimately death.

"It takes about a month or more than a month to actually develop the antibodies," says Dr. Dorn. "So this is your body's response to try to fight the parasite. And that's how we can detect with a really simple test."

Dr. Dorn says that the biggest problem is awareness, few doctors know about the bug and the deadly disease it carries. In a recent case in Texas, a woman was bitten and her doctor didn't know about Chagas.

"She [the doctor] says, I think it's some kind of wasp. And I said, I really don't think so. It went along the floor in a beetle like way. It acted like a beetle. And she said, just put something on it. It's going to be fine. It's a regular bug bite," says Jessica Sitman.

Dr. Dorn examined a picture of the bug that bit Sitman and says Sitman was probably bitten by a 'kissing bug.'

"Here in Louisiana, I'm always thinking about the people who stay out in camps. So when you are in rural areas you are much more likely to encounter these bugs. So keep an eye out for these bugs in camps," says Dr. Dorn.

She says the message is easy, be on the look out for the bugs and get tested if you feel you have fallen victim. Several treatments exist for the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most of the people in the US who are infected were bitten in Mexico, Central or South America. Chagas disease can also be transmitted during pregnancy, through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Blood and organ banks started testing for Chagas in 2007.

Seven cases have been diagnosed in the United States, including one in Louisiana. This is not considered a public health concern. WBRZ checked with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals regarding awareness.

"We are watching the numbers and we are going to make it exclusively reportable," says Louisiana State Epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard. "And the two cases reported before, we did full investigations because even one case can be very useful to learn how it was transmitted to that person."

For more information about Chagas Disease visit the CDC's website.

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