It sounds like a horror movie. At night, while people are peacefully sleeping, a tiny bug crawls over their face, takes a bite, sucks some blood out, and an epic flesh-eating parasitic infection follows. The problem with that scenario is that it’s real, and not the latest summer sci-fi blockbuster. Tiny bloodsucking bugs, called triatomine bugs, spread a parasite that causes Chagas disease. Left untreated, Chagas can have severe impacts on the cardiovascular system and the intestinal tract. The CDC fact sheet warns that complications arise in about 30% of patients and can lead to heart failure and sudden death.
The disease is common in Central and South America, but cases are on the rise in the US, Australia, and Japan. The American Heart Association issued a warning about the disease since many who contract it will not show signs of the infection until it’s too late. It’s been referred to by some scientists as a “silent killer.” Out of more than 100 species of triatomine bugs, about a dozen are considered significant carriers of a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas. When they feed, they usually will also defecate, and if a person rubs their eye and the fecal material enters the wound, the infection easily passes through the mucous membranes. Because the disease is not common in the US, many doctors don’t recognize it. It’s treatable, with anti-parasitic drugs, but only if caught early.