Parasite found in Texas bugs, no human cases reported

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Chagas disease, a tropical parasite commonly found in Latin America, may be more prevalent in Texas than previously thought, according to research done by Sahotra Sarkar, professor of integrative biology and philosophy. The disease can cause general ill feeling such as fever and abdominal pain, and over many years, the symptoms can worsen to include heart and digestive problems.

The protozoa that causes the disease, Trypanosoma cruzi, is commonly carried by triatomine bugs that must bite an organism to transmit the protozoa. The protozoa has been found in dogs, although there have been no reported human transmissions in North America, Sarkar said.

This may be because people have not reported the disease, and it may be prevalent in larger numbers than we are aware of, according to the results of Sarkar’s ongoing five-year study to collect triatomine bugs in the wild.

“Fifty-percent of triatomine bugs we’ve found have tested positive for the protozoa,” Sarkar said. “I doubt there’s any significant danger to Austin, though. It’s a highly urban, managed environment. What we’re seeing is likely to appear in a more rural area.”

Infection has been seen in lab animals from Bastrop at the University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center, suggesting its presence in the wild, Sarkar said.

“One of the most surprising events we’ve seen is that, in the last three months, three monkeys at the Anderson center have contracted the disease,” said Sarkar.

University Health Services currently has no diagnosed cases of chagas disease in the University of Texas student body, said UHS senior program coordinator Sherry Bell.

One reason may be that chagas is not a disease officially reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services, such as many sexually transmitted diseases or tuberculosis, said Christine Mann, assistant press officer of the Department of State Health Services.

“Chagas disease is not a reportable condition in Texas, so we do not have any formal statistics on the number of people diagnosed with the disease or how common it may be in the state,” Mann said.

Some triatomine insects have been found in northern Austin however, but chagas is currently not a disease that will experience an outbreak or severe damage, said Sarkar.

“There’s absolutely no reason to panic,” Sarkar said. “I doubt that the insects would come to campus. If anyone is familiar with these bugs though, we would like them to bring them by our [J.T.] Patterson Laboratories.”