"Here’s how to build a bit of hysteria.
First, lead with a warning that hordes of blood-sucking invaders from the south, night-feeding insects that strike while you sleep, are out and about and carry a parasite that can kill you years later.
Build on that apprehension with a picture of said bug.
Next, mention that an estimated 300,000 people in the United States may be infected with the disease, known as Chagas disease, and not even know it. Then, pile on and add a map showing that the blood sucker can be found across the bottom portion of the United States, and that Virginia is part of their domain.
Your work is done: You’ve scared the bejeebers out of everyone.
If you’re like me, you see something along these lines, and you think maybe that bug is lying in wait in your backyard and that you’re in danger of imminent assault when you close your eyes.
Such has been the case in the past few weeks with some online outlets and television reports concerning critters called kissing bugs leading to people calling entomologists across the state to see if they should be concerned.
Yes, the bugs are real enough, and yes, Chagas is a serious health problem, but let’s dig a bit deeper beyond the scary stuff.
There’s a good reason you’ve likely never heard of this illness, because Chagas is a major problem in Latin America, not North America. And the type of kissing bug that causes so much misery in Central and South America is only a kissing cousin of the varieties to be found around here. More on that later.
Chagas infects an estimated 8 million people in Central and South America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s nothing new: It’s named for Carlos Chagas, a physician from Brazil, who discovered it in 1809.
It's not passed person-to-person like a flu or cold, according to Gonzalo Bearman, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases and a professor of Internal Medicine and the hospital epidemiologist for Virginia Commonwealth University Health System.
Almost all of the cases here are in immigrants who contracted the ailment in their countries of origin. Only a handful of cases were contracted directly in the United States.
"The likelihood of getting infected with Chagas is slim to none (here), Bearman said.
There are several reasons why it's more of a problem in Latin America than here.
The parasite that causes it is Trypanosma cruzi, and you get it from exposure to the feces of an infected triatomine bug, better known as the kissing bug, according to Virginia’s state entomologist, David Gaines. Chagas is not directly transmitted in the bite from the bug.
It’s called a kissing bug because it likes to feed on your face. It gets even grosser: The bugs in Latin America feed and defecate right there on your face. You scratch the bite in your sleep and you spread it into your eyes or nose or mouth, and the parasite has its in.
But the bugs to be found here are a bit more polite. They may feed on you, but they will wait 20 minutes or so to defecate after feeding, and are more likely to have left your body instead of leaving their feces on your person, according to Gaines.
Small comfort, but good to know.
Gaines says there are two native species that have probably been around here for millennia. They mainly feed on raccoons and opossums, and the bugs can indeed carry the parasite. In fact, Gaines says, 30 to 50 percent of raccoons may be infected, but it doesn’t seem to affect them.
The type of construction of housing likely plays a part in the bugs getting into homes in Latin America, with structures more open to keep them cooler, and the homes less well built in impoverished communities, allowing the bugs to go in and out.
Exposure to the feces is the most common mode of transmission, but you also can be exposed in other ways, say through contact with feces in dust, or if a bug falls into a cup of coffee, Gaines says. He notes one case in South America when an infected bug fell from a ceiling into a blender and a drink that was being prepared for children.
There are some of the problematic species in the far South and Western United States, in Texas, for instance, and in Arizona, Gaines says.
OK, so the Latin American bugs’ kissing cousins are here. Should you be concerned?
No, but maybe aware.
Gaines says to call his office if you suspect you may have kissing bugs in your home. He had 10 different bugs sent to him recently, sent them out for testing, and two were positive.
“I certainly try to keep my thumb on it,” he says.
If you actually have the bug in your home, call in the exterminator, as you would with any infestation.
But if you think you’re seeing them outdoors, no worries, according to Gaines. The real thing hides in cracks and crevices and is only active at night, so if you’re seeing something outside in the day, it’s probably something else.
Eric Day, manager of the Virginia Tech Insect Identification Lab in Blacksburg, says that what most people are actually seeing are either cone nose bugs or stink bugs.
“Just because it looks big and evil doesn’t mean it’s a kissing bug,” he says in a release. “There is not an outbreak of kissing bugs nor are there more [than] normal this year.”
Nor is there reason to get all panicky here in Richmond.
“I’ve been deluged with bug specimens this week, and none have been kissing bugs,” Gaines says.
Here's a fairly complete overview courtesy of the CDC: