Chagas Disease May Be a Threat in South Texas, Says Researcher

Oct. 6, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — Chagas disease, a tropical parasitic disease that can lead to life-threatening heart and digestive disorders, may be more widespread in Texas than previously thought, according to research from The University of Texas at Austin.

 A composite risk map for Chagas disease in Texas. According to Sarkar's analysis eleven counties are at particular risk: Bee, Bexar, Brooks, Cameron, DeWitt, Goliad, Hidalgo, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, and Nueces.

A composite risk map for Chagas disease in Texas. According to Sahotra Sarkar's analysis eleven counties are at particular risk: Bee, Bexar, Brooks, Cameron, DeWitt, Goliad, Hidalgo, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, and Nueces.

"We've been studying this for four years now, and this year the number of disease-causing insects is quite amazing," says Sahotra Sarkar, professor of integrative biology and philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin and lead author of a paper on the disease published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Endemic to rural areas of Latin America, Chagas disease is often transmitted by triatomine bugs, also known as "kissing bugs."

In order to assess the prevalence of Chagas disease in Texas, Sarkar is working with a network of health professionals and researchers around the state. After collecting and classifying insects from the field, Sarkar sends them to Philip Williamson, an assistant professor at The University of North Texas Health Science Center. Williamson determines how many of the bugs carry the protozoa Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes the disease.

From the data Sarkar creates epidemiological maps showing the number and location of carrier insects, recorded human Chagas infections and hospitable habitats for the insects.

The maps suggest South Texas is an area of high risk for Chagas infection. Sarkar says there may already be hundreds of undiagnosed cases of the disease.

Chagas can be hard to detect because it can look like the flu at first, with symptoms similar to pains and fever. The symptoms appear to go away but the disease can live in a person for decades, sometimes reappearing in the form of digestive or heart failure.

In Texas, where most doctors are not familiar with the disease and are not required to report it to public health officials, they may misinterpret its late-onset symptoms as an old age problem, says Sarkar.

Sahotra Sarkar inspects one of the triatomine species that may be a carrier of the parasite that causes Chagas disease.

Sahotra Sarkar inspects a triatomine bug. It's one of the species that may be a carrier of the parasite that causes Chagas disease.

"So it doesn't get diagnosed at the beginning, and it doesn't get diagnosed at the end," he says.

Until further research is done, Sarkar and his colleagues won't be able to say for sure how widespread the disease is. They believe the risks are high enough, however, to recommend a few low-cost, low-impact changes to the way the Texas public health system deals with Chagas.

They say Chagas should be designated as a reportable disease, which would require health professionals to report incidences of it to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Efforts should be launched in South Texas to more thoroughly determine the prevalence of Chagas in humans, dogs and wild species (particularly rats) that often act as reservoirs of the disease. And there should be mandatory screening of blood donations for the presence of Chagas. Currently, screening is voluntary and only done with about 65 percent of samples.

In the future, Sarkar would like to see Mexico and the U.S. collaborate on a multi-layered attack on the disease. He points to the success of the Southern Cone Initiative in South America as a model. Simple changes in lifestyle, such as keeping piles of wood away from the home and encouraging people to switch from adobe or wooden houses to concrete, have been effective. Selective spraying for the insects has also been key to decreasing the burden of the disease in South America.

High-resolution press images are available.

For more information, contact: Daniel Oppenheimer, Hogg Foundation, 512 745 3353; Sahotra Sarkar, School of Biological Sciences, 512-232-3800.

21 Comments to "Chagas Disease May Be a Threat in South Texas, Says Researcher"

1.  Lisa Zuniga said on Oct. 13, 2011

Thanks for this report. I live in South Texas and was unaware of this potential hazard.

2.  Clara Usrey said on Oct. 13, 2011

Why don't you post pictures of the insect so lay people can recognize the bug and understand some of the consequences of a bite or sting---whichever the bug does. It would be help in diagnosis.

3.  S Sass said on Oct. 13, 2011

Great illustrations of the insect on link to Wikepedia entrance.
I live outside the state now but vacation in Texas, often camping in central and south Texas. This information is especially helpful as most medical personnel don't consider Texas a possible site for "exotic" disease. I had a hard time in the 1980s convincing NY doctors I had Lyme disease from mosquito bites in Texas because it had not yet been identified in Texas. Two years later other occurances were identified dating to the time of my visit.
Good luck on further research and distribution of results.

4.  Erv Grafe said on Oct. 13, 2011

Clara, click on the words "kissing bugs" (in red font), in the third paragraph above - it's a link to a page telling you all about the bug.

5.  John Panzarella said on Oct. 13, 2011

I agree with Clara Usrey you need to post pictures of the true bug so that we can distinguish from the beneficial assassin bug which I think is in the same family. Google images was not much help.

6.  Victor M. Carrera said on Oct. 13, 2011

Those bugs are very common in south Texas, where they are referred to in Spanish as "chinche".

7.  Dale Dingley said on Oct. 14, 2011

Before my retirement from the Medical Parasitology Section of the Texas Department of Health in 1998, we had confirmed 2 cases of Chagas' Disease in humans in Texas, one in Mathis (near Corpus Christi) and the other in Robinson (near Waco). Two additional human cases in Texas had been confirmed in the 1950's. Chagas' Disease in canines also was an occasional finding during my time at the TDH (1965 - 1998).

8.  T. Brown said on Oct. 16, 2011

What tests can be requested of doctors if we have flu-like symptoms to see if it is Chagas instead?

9.  tom hill said on Oct. 18, 2011

Is there a treatment? If bitten by bug, how long is the window to kill it before it becomes a parasite living permanently in your body?
What is the treatment?
Don't tease us, tell us more..tom

10.  jerry said on Oct. 19, 2011

I Live in S.Texas and have seen these bugs on numerous occasions just thought it was another ugly bug, a friend found one in her house the other day asked what it was i told her it was a stink bug..Will tell her to be causcious...Thanks for the Info

11.  Karen Brizendine said on Oct. 19, 2011

I have the insects. The professor who is doing this work....can I mail you some of see if they have it? Or can I just mail you some? What address? Thanks, Karen

12.  Daniel Oppenheimer said on Oct. 20, 2011

Dr. Sarkar told me the following: "The bug can be sent to us provided that it is dead and preserved in alcohol. We can identify it and then send it on to UNTHSC for testing. We need the exact GPS co-ordinates where it was collected and the date of collection."

Sahotra Sarkar,
Section of Integrative Biology,
Department of Philosophy,
University of Texas at Austin,
Waggener Hall 316,
Austin, TX 78712 -1180.


13.  Curtis C. Stauffer, MD said on Oct. 25, 2011

Great article and glad to see concern in this area. Also wonder with recent immigration patterns how many people from endemic areas in Central/South America will be showing up with heart failure in future in our health system.

14.  De said on Jan. 7, 2012

I saw this bug in Clear Lake Park of back near League City, Texas. It was a giant bug on my knee. I didn't know what it was. It was 2x2 inches, clear orange-ish with hair and spikes, it's flat but end curled up with 2 spikes, 3 legs and long antennae that wiggled at me! I froze as we looked at each other. I swatted at it. I didn't know who to notify. It scared me and I never went back to the Walter Hall Park in League City, Texas!

15.  Kim Guerra said on Jan. 29, 2012

My family became aware of Chagas when our 5 yr old cocker spaniel bean retaining fluids after giving birth to a litter of pups. Her heart was huge and tested negative for heart worms. The vet told us that Chagas disease is a growing problem that he sees very often. I started doing my research, found the beetles on my property and had them identified by the county extension agents office. We have found at least 10 of these beetles on our property just south of Kingsville, Tx. The parasite is transmitted through the bugs feces and if you checkout the CDC website you will be amazed at the lack of treatment options available. I have four children and have found several of this beetles inside my home-- very scary. I wish there was some public education about this serious concern.

16.  Terry Winlo said on March 18, 2012

We live in austin and believe we have this dreadful disease. Where can we post some digtal photos or email for ID. We are very sick
Thank you in advance
T. Winlo

17.  Elizabeth Parker said on April 19, 2012

I have 50 acres of brushland in So. Mission close to the Rio Grande River and we have a very BIG infestation with the Kissing Bugs. Found four a few minutes ago. I would like to see if these bugs can be tested to see how many actually are carriers.We have lost 4 dogs to this desease already, they were tested at Texas A&M University. I had talked to a Prefessor last year who was very interested but have since lost her information

18.  David said on May 31, 2012

Clara Usrey is right....a picture of the bug should be posted so that the public can be better aware of this health hazard bugs. The Unfortunate thing is once you are bitten it will eventually be fatal. The sad part also it can be in your digestive system for years until you succumb to it. In addition, there is no known cure.

19.  Andrea elston said on June 1, 2012

I am in Mustange Ridge just south of Austin and have been seeing alot of these bugs. I was bitten a while back and after contacting my doctor and the health dept no one had even heard about this and was no help. I'll be sending in specimens to the university. In the meantime , any ideas on how to get a blood test for this?

20.  Daniel Oppenheimer said on June 6, 2012

The Texas Department of State Health Services will test bugs, see this URL for instructions:

In terms of being tested yourself, this website suggests asking your primary care provider to send your blood on to the CDC, though you may have to have some arguments with your insurance company to make sure they cover the costs.

21.  Antonio Aguilar said on June 9, 2012

I have sent an email to Dr.Sarkar, I have killed one and have preserved it in alcohol, just as instructed.

Hope to hear from him soon,