It’s the kiss of death for Latin American communities in the US.
While health experts often warn of mosquitoes and other disease-carrying bugs, the deadly kissing bug — a k a the triatomine bug, which kills 10,000 people per year globally — continues to be overlooked in the US, as it disproportionately affects poor Hispanic communities. That alarming disparity is the subject of the new book “The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease.”
Apparently, not even the infectious disease world is immune to racism.
“[The disease] was still very much being neglected by medical schools, medical institutions and public health officials, that was such a shock,” author Daisy Hernández told NBC of the shocking find.
The Colombian-American’s first experience with the scourge came when her aunt died from complications of Chagas disease, a parasite spread by the kissing bug — colloquially known as that due to its habit of biting sleeping victims on their faces, according to USA Today. Most fatalities are caused by the Chagas parasite ravaging the patient’s heart and digestive system.
In light of the horrific event, Hernández has made it her mission to cover every facet of the disease.
First discovered in 1909 by Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, the ailment has a fraught history in the US. “Kissing Bug” details a beastly experiment in the 1940s, in which a Texas researcher purposefully planted kissing bugs on a young black psychiatry patient in order to study Chagas’ effects.
Today, the underreported affliction affects 300,000 people in the US, predominantly Latin American immigrants in Texas, California and Florida, NBC reported. Unfortunately, as there is no national surveillance program, it’s unclear where people are most affected by Chagas in this country.
“Chagas disease is a disease of inequity,” lamented Dr. Norman Beatty, a University of Florida medicine professor who has been studying Chagas since 2015.
The parasitic condition is also not a high priority in the medical community, according to Dr. S. Wesley Long, medical director of microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital. He explained that physicians are taught that “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras,” he told USA Today. “Chagas is a zebra.”
That apparent lack of attention — and data — is particularly problematic given the insidious nature of the disease, which can spread from person to person via everything from organ donations to blood transfusions, the CDC reported. Mothers can even infect their babies with Chagas during pregnancy.
In addition, many victims aren’t even aware they’ve contracted Chagas, as they don’t exhibit any symptoms. Or if they do, they often entail “fever, fatigue, enlarged lymph nodes” and other “flu-like” symptoms that will dissipate quickly, providing no indication that the parasite is still coursing through their system, according to Beatty.
When it finally manifests, the effects are usually cataclysmic, with 20 to 30% of patients experiencing cardiac and gastrointestinal complications — as was the case with Hernández’s aunt.
Anti-parasitic drugs can help prevent the spread but only if the infection is detected early.
That can be a tall order given the lack of health-care access in many Latin American immigrant enclaves — not to mention that Latinos have the highest rates of uninsured people among any other racial or ethnic group, which can prove disastrous for low-income Chagas sufferers, NBC reported.
Hernández cites the case of 40-year-old Carlos, whose Chagas-induced heart condition kept him from holding down a job. However, in a vicious catch-22, he was forced to keep working to pay his outstanding medical bills.
It’s not only about “getting access to health care,” explained Hernández. “It’s also being able to take time off from work to go to an appointment, to go to multiple appointments.”
Fortunately, attitudes towards this historically overlooked condition are starting to shift as Chagas spreads to areas previously unaffected by the disease. Two years ago, a Delaware girl was bitten by a kissing bug for the first time, indicating that the pathogen vector was migrating further north. Meanwhile, the first case in Nebraska was reported earlier this summer, according to a press release from California State University, Fullerton.
“There’s a lot that we can do and that is why it is so important for us to be screening for Chagas disease and to link patients with a provider who has knowledge on how this disease works and what treatments and therapies are available,” said Beatty.
The infectious disease researchers at California State also recently discovered a groundbreaking “new mechanism that can be exploited as a target for potential drug development,” according to the release.
“We have no vaccines or good medications to treat it, so the development of new drugs is a priority,” added Veronica Jimenez, associate professor of biological science.
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