Odd new health threats: Kissing bug, armadillo

The triatomine bug, popularly known as the kissing bug, can carry a serious disease.

The kissing bug is no beauty. A half-inch long, it looks like a cross between a roach and a paper wasp, with wings folded back like a bat.

Don’t pucker up to it in the Lowcountry. It could be carrying Chagas, a disease that researchers are calling the new AIDS in the Americas.

And if that doesn’t cause you to cringe, the leprosy-prone armadillo might.

Health officials are becoming more concerned about the spread of once-obscure diseases like Chagas and leprosy, partly because of the apparent expanding range of both in the Southeast.

Chagas had been a disease found largely in Latin America and the arid Southwest. It is a disease caused by a parasite. At first the symptoms are fever, headache and nausea symptoms, a lot like a flu. But over time it can lead to complications, such as sudden-onset heart attacks and intestinal problems. A National Institutes of Health study suggested that it could kill as many as a third of the people infected with it in Latin America.

The parasite is known to be spread by the triatomine bug, popularly called the kissing bug because of a tendency to bite humans on or near the mouth. More than 130 species of the bug are bloodsuckers, literally, and at least a few carry a parasite that causes the disease.

South Carolina has at least three of the species, including a new one identified last year.

Now bed bugs have been shown to be able to carry it, too. So have coyotes.

The disease hasn’t shown up in the state so far except in dogs, as near as anyone can tell. Incidents aren’t required to be reported in South Carolina. But researchers recently found an outbreak in northern Virginia, brought in by people from other countries. Tennessee is among the states that do test for it, after it turned up there.

At least 300,000 people are thought to carry the disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of them are thought to have acquired it in Latin America, said Sue Montgomery of the CDC. Only 28 cases are confirmed to have been acquired here.

“Because it’s not notifiable in key states where the bug lives and many infections have not been identified, the burden (incidence) among non-Latin Americans is not known,” Montgomery said.

Only five states now require reporting of the disease. Few doctors are experienced with it. Blood supplies are not screened for it.

Meanwhile, nine cases of leprosy have been diagnosed in Florida so far this year, according to CNN, in a state that usually sees two to a dozen per year. Leprosy is the skin disease usually thought of as a biblical scourge that is all but wiped out in the developed world.

But one carrier is the armadillo, the armor-shelled beast now burrowing under a fence near your yard. Once confined to the arid Southwest, the creatures have swarmed the Southeast lowlands and into the foothills. First spotted in South Carolina in the Lowcountry in the 1990s, they’re now common in subdivision neighborhoods.

The Florida leprosy reports are alarming because previously only one or two cases were known of humans getting the disease from a wild armadillo; in those cases the persons ate raw or undercooked meat, according to University of Georgia’s Center for Urban Agriculture.

Investigators for the Florida Department of Health haven’t determined yet just how the nine people became infected. But the department is recommending that people avoid contact with wild animals such as armadillos, and take precautions by using gloves and washing hands.

Chagas is a bigger puzzle because less is known about it in this country. The bright spot about the disease is that, like leprosy, it appears to be very hard to get. The bug is nocturnal, and doesn’t tend to be found indoors unless it is in cracks or holes in the walls.

If it has the parasite, it has to defecate — repeatedly, some health professionals think — on a person to transmit it.

Once the parasite is in the blood of humans, though, it can be transmitted with the exchange of blood. Chagas, in fact, has been called “the new AIDS in the Americas,” according to the Harvard University School of Health, because of its rapid spread through the hemisphere and because it infects the blood.

The disease certainly could turn up in South Carolina, said Brian Scholtens, College of Charleston entomologist.

“We have the bugs in the state and plenty of potential vectors. Up to this point, the only thing we have lacked is the actual disease organism,” he said. But that can change very quickly with movement of either infected dogs or humans, he said.

“Most humans are unlikely to get bitten (by the bug),” Scholtens said. “It is more likely that the other hosts would be involved in the overall increase in transmission rates, and humans may be more at risk from infected blood supplies if we don’t start routinely screening for the parasite.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.