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Professor’s research shows ‘kissing bug’ disease may be overlooked by medical community

Loyola press release - December 2, 2014

During her many years as one of the foremost experts on Chagas disease and its carrier, the so-called "kissing bug," Loyola University New Orleans professor Patricia Dorn, Ph.D., and her colleagues have long considered the problem to be a Latin American one because of the prevalence of the disease in that area.

Now Dorn and her fellow researchers have found that the "kissing bugs," which carry a potentially deadly parasite called, Trypanosoma cruzi, are feeding on humans in Louisiana. And heart disease caused by the Chagas parasite may be misdiagnosed because doctors don’t know to look for Chagas.

"The medical community should be aware," Dorn said.

In the course of her research, Dorn and her team collected more than 500 bugs, of which they took a random sample of 49. Of those, 49 percent were found to have human blood in their digestive system and 38 percent of those had the parasite that causes the Chagas disease.

"The first surprise was that almost half the bugs had fed on humans and the second surprise was that nearly 40 percent of these bugs also had the parasite that causes Chagas," Dorn said.

When the bug bites a victim, it can contaminate the bite wound with the parasite via its feces. The bite can cause immediate problems, such as allergic reactions. But researchers are more concerned that it can lead to Chagas disease, which can lurk in the tissues for decades before becoming symptomatic, leading to medical ailments including cardiomyopathy and heart failure. Still relatively unknown in the medical community, Chagas disease is often misdiagnosed as other ailments—even in animals.

Dorn is trying to change that with her research and the publication of her latest paper to be published in the December edition of the Center for Disease Control's Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

"We need to look at it as a differential for unexplained heart disease," Dorn said. "It also could be a cause of heart disease in dogs."