Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eeww--A bug bites while you sleep, and its poop gives you parasites

 You may know that recently I wrote about a debilitating mosquito-borne disease sweeping the Americas that leaves a fifth of its victims with ongoing joint dysfunction. Chikingunya has affected 500,000 Dominicans and thousands of others in the Caribbean, and made it to Florida this summer. The virus swept through my handy-man's family and friends in El Salvador, and seeing his distress has caused us all pain.

I got a response to my post from my new daughter-in-law who's in nursing school: "Did you hear about the other disease that's spreading around the US, caused by insects that bite your face while you sleep??"

Bite your face while you sleep? Get ready: "Chagas" is even worse than chikingunya (though easier to pronounce).

Blood-suckers called "kissing [or 'assassin'] bugs" (triatomine) take their snack and leave their parasite-infested poop as a souvenir. Unknowingly, you touch it and spread it into your own system by nudging a bit into the puncture, or touching your eye or mouth. 

Then, you've got it for life--and maybe death.

There are two phases of infection. In the first, "acute" phase, you might get symptoms that could be identified as something else: "fever, fatigue, body aches, headache, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting," says RT news. Swelling around the eye near the infection site ("Romana's sign)  is another clue to chagas. The Centers for Disease Control adds, "Rarely, acute infection may result in severe inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain." Or, this first phase could produce no symptoms at all.

"Megacolon" caused by Chagas
It's the second phase that can be especially deadly, and it can happen over a period of years or decades. According to Baylor College of Medicine researcher Melissa Nolan Garcia, 41% of Texas blood donors who tested positive for the parasite (and that was 1 per 6,500 blood donors) had "cardiomyopathy," which includes a host of heart problems that can lead to death. Also common are gastrointestinal problems (megadisease) that can make esophagus, stomach or colon--enormous.

 As if that's not bad enough, no treatments eliminate the parasites. A couple of drugs (benznidazole [Rochagan, Ragonil] and nifurtimox [Lampit]) are often used, but their effectiveness is hit-or-miss and the only place you can get them in the US is from the Centers for Disease Control. I've seen comments that baking soda on the bite, and consumed in water, is helpful, but anecdotal reports won't cut it. Unfortunately, a pregnant woman can pass the parasite to her baby. Most people living with T. cruzi don't even know it--or what it's doing to them. And yet world-wide, ten million people are living with it!

So far, the CDC says "kissing bugs" inhabit only the southern United States, and those suffering with chagas further north contracted it through travel from infected regions.

 Given its designation as a "silent killer" because victims can be asymptomatic until their conditions are dire, I certainly hope this scourge receives more attention. It's the opposite of Sleeping Beauty, whose princely kiss revives her from a deathly rest--a bug that brings ultimate death by its night-time kiss while you sleep. People are getting so scared that Snopes took it on and reported it's true--there's indeed something to fear. Sweet dreams!

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