Additionally, a health screening will be conducted. One of Beatty’s goals is to see if those who are infected have higher rates of other comorbidities such as diabetes and high blood pressure compared with people who are uninfected.
The kissing bug’s name is something of a misnomer. Bite marks can sometimes be found on the face, where the kissing bug takes a blood meal while someone sleeps, hence the derivation of the name.
“Some of the studies I’ve done actually show that people are bitten more commonly on the arms and the legs under the covers,” Beatty said.
In any case, the bite doesn’t spread the disease-bearing parasite. Instead, the feces of the bug, which carries the parasite that causes Chagas disease, can be rubbed into a bite site or even ingested through the environment, especially in contaminated food or fruit juices.
Death often comes through heart complications, including congestive heart failure. Serious gastrointestinal problems also can occur.
Increased awareness is of critical importance in the United States since most people will not exhibit any symptoms of Chagas disease when they are infected. A minority of people experience fatigue, fever, body aches, among other symptoms, in the first few weeks of the disease that they might easily pass off as the flu or other less severe illness.
But the symptoms dissipate even as the parasite remains hard at work for decades, eventually triggering chronic inflammation in the tissues it targets, such as the heart and gastrointestinal tract.
If patients and medical practitioners are unaware of the disease, diagnosis can be delayed many years until the infection is so advanced that the odds of survival are diminished.
Beatty, an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases and global medicine, said fewer than 1% of the 300,000 people in the U.S. infected by Chagas disease have been diagnosed.
While triatomine insects are found in Florida and throughout the southern half of the United States, locally acquired Chagas disease in the U.S. is thought to be a rare occurrence, with approximately 78 cases nationally described in the literature. But Beatty said we know very little about how people are infected in the U.S.
Beatty has enough funding to screen 500 people initially, but he hopes to greatly expand that as more money becomes available. Scientists believe 18,000 people in Florida have Chagas disease, but there is much uncertainty in that number. Florida trails only California and Texas in total estimated cases.