PhotoThey're sometimes called "kissing bugs" while others call them "assassin bugs." But whatever you call them, the tiny insects found in west Texas and elsewhere are dangerous; they can spread Chagas disease, which affects the heart and gastrointestinal system.

Unlike mosquitoes that transmit malaria through the bite, kissing bugs -- Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi) -- drop feces on the subject while filling up with blood. The feces, which are contaminated with the parasite, often lands in the bite wound. From there, it penetrates the bloodstream and affects the heart and gastrointestinal system.

Curious about how prevalent the bugs are, researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) set traps to collect the insects at the university's Indio Mountains Research Station. The station sits about 100 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Hudspeth County, Texas.

In all, the researchers trapped 39 kissing bugs and tests revealed that 24 bugs-- or 61 percent -- were infected with T. cruzi. The findings were published in the journal Acta Tropica.

"It surprised me that so many of them were carrying the parasite," says Rosa A. Maldonado, D.Sc., an associate professor of biological sciences at UTEP who led the study. "I was expecting to have some, but this is quite high."

Heart disease

Maldonado adds that there's a high rate of heart disease along the border and one of the causes could be Chagas disease.

Thirty percent of people infected with the parasite develop life-threatening symptoms like heart rhythm abnormalities and difficulty eating or passing stool. The disease can also lead to an enlarged esophagus, colon, and heart - as well as heart failure.

"Doctors usually don't consider Chagas disease when they diagnose patients, so they need to be aware of its prevalence here," says Maldonado. To prevent parasite transmission by the kissing bug, the biologist says it's important to be aware of the presence of the bugs in the house and yard because pets like dogs and cats are also vulnerable.

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