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Does your doctor know the dangers of 'Kissing bugs?' New research aims to inform medical professionals

Loyola press release - June 9, 2014

Loyola University New Orleans student Traci Schlosser was browsing her physician husband’s latest copy of The American Journal of Medicine when, to her delight, she saw an article and an editorial from a familiar source—her Loyola professor and Chagas disease expert Patricia Dorn, Ph.D. The article, just published in the prestigious national medical journal, aims to inform doctors and other medical professionals of the deadly dangers of “Kissing bugs” in the Southwestern U.S.—something doctors may largely be unaware of.

Dorn’s new research is challenging the dogma that people and kissing bugs never collide in the U.S. In fact, her research shows people in the Southwestern states are encountering a deadly killer: the “Kissing bugs” that harbor the parasite that causes Chagas disease—one of the most serious parasitic diseases in Latin America. In Latin America, 7 to 8 million people are infected with the Chagas parasite and 30 to 40 percent of those are doomed to life-threatening heart disease.

Although the bugs don’t infect humans at the same rate as they do in Latin America, the free-roaming kissing bugs in the desert Southwest frequently feed on humans outside the confines of their homes. For example, all of the eight bugs tested had fed on humans and three of these were also infected with the Chagas-causing parasite Dorn and her team study—something the scientists can tell by looking at the DNA in the bugs’ abdomens. Because some of these bugs harbor the deadly parasite, this could represent an unrecognized potential for transmission of Chagas disease in the U.S., according to the study.

What’s more, even if the “Kissing bugs” don’t infect a person with the Chagas disease-causing parasite, deadly risks still remain. Those risks include serious, even deadly allergic reactions to “Kissing bug” bites—something doctors and other medical professionals need to be keenly aware of, especially in the Southwest, according to Dorn.

More frequent is the very serious anaphylactic shock from bug bites. In Phoenix, for example, one person died. According to the study, the bug bites hit peak levels from May to June in Tucson, Ariz. They also commonly feed on pets and are responsible for many dog deaths across the southern U.S.

In the bottom two-thirds of the U.S., Dorn and fellow researchers recommend doctors check for “Kissing bug” bites for otherwise unexplained allergic reactions and heart disease.

Schlosser, Dorn’s former student, knows firsthand these dangers of the biting bugs in the U.S. As a student in Dorn’s parasitology class, she learned from the bugs’ DNA in the lab that local “Kissing bugs” do in fact, pose deadly risks.

“Our local 'Kissing bugs,' are feeding on felines, canines, raccoons, squirrels and Homo sapiens. I must say when I take my children to the park now, we are on the lookout for 'Kissing bugs,'” Schlosser said. “It is encouraging to know that the medical community is now recognizing the health implications these local ‘Kissing bugs’ and their parasites can impose.”

For media interviews or high-resolution photos, please contact Mikel Pak, Loyola associate director of public affairs.