By ALLEN REED
"It's like something straight out of science fiction horror: A bug spread across Texas that can transmit a deadly parasite to humans and dogs for which no vaccine exists. The parasite-induced infection is on the World Health Organization's 17 neglected tropical diseases list, meaning that there is very little data on where the bugs are or how many carry the deadly parasite.
However, researchers at Texas A&M are working hard to answer those questions and have solicited the public's help in catching the elusive critters.
The public enemy is the kissing bug, also known as cone-nose bugs, Mexican bedbugs or chinches. There are 11 different species in Texas. They can grow up to one-inch long, and are black- and brown-colored with orange markings. They like to hide in tight spaces, such as woodpiles, yard debris and woodrat nests, and are attracted to light. The adults can fly but rarely do unless they're hungry.
The nocturnal bugs hunt food by locating heat and carbon dioxide and acquired their "kissing" nickname from their tendency to bite around the eyes and mouth, areas typically uncovered while a person sleeps.
Some of the bugs carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease. Neither the bite nor the bloodsucking causes the infection -- that comes from the fecal matter that the bug simultaneously distributes onto its prey next to the open wounds.
The Chagas disease can initially cause an allergic reaction or anaphylactic shock, but the parasite can later affect the heart and digestive tract, ultimately causing death.
"They definitely would be considered generalists, in that they can feed on a lot of mammalian species, and unfortunately that includes humans and dogs," said Sarah Hamer, study leader and an assistant professor in the department of veterinary integrative biosciences.
Hamer heads the project to study the bugs along with doctoral student Rachel Curtis and A&M entomologist Gabriel Hamer. The group members work with Karen Snowden from the A&M department of veterinary pathobiology, who has studied the bugs before and whose work has helped pave the way for the latest research.
The disease is most prevalent in South America, Central America and Mexico, with an estimated 8 to 11 million people infected, according to the Center for Disease Control, most of whom are unaware they are infected. The disease is curable if treatment is initiated soon after infection and vaccines are in development, but researchers warn medications are in short supply and not always effective.
Curtis, who is studying the bugs as a part of her Ph.D. dissertation, said the kissing bugs are distributed across 26 states across the south, all the way from California to Virginia. The kissing bugs, she said, have been in the area since the early 1900s.
"The bug has been here for a long time. It's not necessarily new; we're just more interested in it now," Curtis said.
The Texas Department of State Health Services on Jan. 1 began requiring doctors and veterinarians to report the disease. Spokeswoman Christine Mann said that no confirmed cases have been received by the state. Still, that doesn't mean no cases have been reported. Mann said the department does not release the number of reported cases and that cases, if reported, could potentially take months to verify.
Hamer said a key question the team is trying to answer is if the disease is emerging in Texas. There is a lot more buzz about the disease, she said, but it is unclear if the disease is more prevalent or more talked about. The team is working to understand how many bugs there are and how or if they are spreading. They're examining the different species of kissing bugs and testing them to determine their geographic origin, parasitic infection rate and what exactly the bugs have been sucking blood from.
The A&M researchers already collect the bugs using blacklights and various forms of light traps or sticky traps. Curtis said she is focusing on testing small mammals the bugs feed on, such as field mice, to study the rate of infection. Still, the nocturnal bugs are hard to collect, and the small team of A&M researchers want people to help locate them.
Curtis warned to never touch a kissing bug with a bare hand, but to use a glove or small plastic bag to trap the insect without direct contact. She said to store the bug in a bag or a container and to contact A&M about how to donate the sample. The researchers said it's important to document what time and date the bug was collected, how it was found, and what it was doing when caught.
Curtis said if people need help identifying a kissing bug or have general questions about submissions to email her at email@example.com, call at 458-4924 or visit http://bit.ly/Z9Un1m. Researchers said there are a lot of bugs that look like kissing bugs, which could lead to unwarranted worrying.
If a person finds a kissing bug in the Bryan-College Station area, Curtis said she would come out and personally collect it.
"We want people to be very careful," Curtis said. "If they are concerned at all about catching it themselves, they can contact me, and if they're in the area I'm always interested in being invited to the property."