This is significant. I did some summer work in Central America several years ago and Chagas is an endemic problem with major implications on population health. So much so that the public health campaign was essentially “kill any and all Chagas beetles* you see.” This is a large post with this massive Dallas Morning News article as the main source, along with some skimming of the WHO page on Chagas. Seriously, that Dallas Morning News 3-part article was impressive. I highly recommend it.

While the bugs themselves aren’t new to Texas, it seems like there may be a situation of potential infections reaching levels much higher than originally presumed. People are often asymptomatic of it for decades, and doctors aren’t familiar with it in the US.

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It also affects pets, with dogs commonly having it in Central America. According to a Dallas Morning News article, vets think upwards of 1 in 10 dogs in Texas carry the parasite. This also fucking sucks. It’s not like your dog can be all, “hey. I’m experiencing some shortness of breath and lethargy, can you take me to the vet?” I suspect a lot of family pets are dying younger than they should because of this.

Here’s the thing. You get bit by one of the funky looking beetles carrying the parasite. You might have some flu-like symptoms, maybe some localized swelling around your eyes or mouth. (The beetles are also called kissing bugs, because they tend to bite people on the face. And then defecate near the wound.) Eh, most people brush that off. Many people can’t afford to go to the doctor for non-critical things, and this often seems to clear up after a few weeks anyways.

15-30 years later 1 in 3 people infected die of sudden heart problems because the chronic effects include thickening the heart muscle which weakens it significantly. It can also fatally damage the digestive tract. According to that impressive Dallas Morning News article, “One in 10 will suffer damage to the nerves and gut so that food sticks in the bowels until patients can no longer defecate.”

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So far, at least 39 people have tested positive for Chagas in Texas, and about a third of those have no international travel it could be blamed on. Many by accident, for example the lady who decided to give blood and hadn’t in years so she checked the box to have it tested for all that stuff they screen for. A lot of the problem is that doctors just don’t know to look for it.

From the article, “In 2007, blood centers started to voluntarily screen first-time donors. More than 2,000 people have tested positive since then.

Among them are Texans who received letters from blood centers saying their blood could not be accepted because they were infected with a tropical disease. When they took the letter to their family doctor, they were told that there must be some mix-up, that Chagas disease didn’t occur in the U.S.”

A key problem is that donors are only required to test once for this parasite. So, you can be totally fine and then later contract and transmit this parasite in a blood donation, not even realizing you carry it.

Like everything else, the most vulnerable economically will be most at risk for this, too. I didn’t see any stats on cost, but the woman interviewed had to drive over an hour every other week to get her meds. Treatment during the initial acute phase is very effective, but it requires access to a doctor that knows what the hell to look for. Further research testing Chagas beetles caught around homes indicates high levels of parasitic infection in the beetles.

Given how we in the States tend to view “tropical diseases” as an “over there” problem, or the occasional “omg guess what so-and-so got on vacation???” problem, this could have major long-term public health ramifications.

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*there is a scientific name for the beetles that carry the parasite, triatomine bugs, however when I was in Belize they were just referred to as Chagas beetles