Bed Bugs May Harbor the Deadly Chagas Disease

Reports of bed bug infestations continue to rise across the world, with the unwelcome parasites proliferating in homes, hotels, schools, busses and movie theatres. The tiny creatures are notorious for the red itchy bites they inflict on sleeping humans, but some comfort could be taken from the commonly held belief that while bed bugs are a nuisance, at least they don’t carry disease.


Over the past century, researchers have tested bed bugs for everything from the plague to leprosy to hepatitis and AIDS. Scientists fed bed bugs blood laced with pathogens to see if any viruses could be transmitted via their bites. Every test confirmed that no diseases were capable of being spread from bed bugs to humans.


However the long-held belief that bed bugs don’t spread disease has recently been shaken.


A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine has warned that the uninvited houseguests may be more than just an itchy inconvenience. The study revealed that bed bugs might transmit a parasite that causes Chagas disease, an infection prevalent in Mexico, Central America and South America that can lead to intestinal complications or cardiac disease.


Researcher Michael Levy noted that the study doesn’t definitively prove bed bugs are transmitting Chagas to humans, however he believes they may play a role. His research involved a set of experiments demonstrating that both mice and bed bugs are capable of transmitting Chagas to one another. The experiments showed that mice could contract Chagas if contaminated bed bug feces comes into contact with their broken skin.


Melissa Nolan Garcia, an epidemiologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says the Triatominae insect, also known as the ‘kissing bug’ is a confirmed carrier of Chagas. These large bloodsuckers are closely related to bed bugs, and earned their name from their tendency to bite victims around the mouth. The bites cause the bug’s feces to enter the person’s bloodstream, thereby introducing the parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas.


Levy noted that humans may encounter bed bugs more frequently than kissing bugs, and bed bugs are more difficult to eradicate due to their resistance to modern pesticides. This means bed bugs may ultimately prove more dangerous than kissing bugs. In Latin America, up to eight million people are infected with Chagas disease, and approximately 50,000 die each year from Chagas-related illness.


“As we’ve seen over and over again in bug-borne diseases, the bugs spread first and then the parasite comes, and then the parasite emerges in the bugs,” said Levy.


According to Nolan Garcia, further research is essential to learn about Chagas disease and its carriers. Since the disease often doesn’t present symptoms until many years after infection, it can be difficult to gain an accurate measure of its spread, or provide appropriate treatment for victims. While medical care does exist, it is typically only effective at the onset of the disease.


However it’s important to remember that bed bugs only carry the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, and they aren’t the originator of Chagas disease. If your house has bed bugs, then you’re not at risk of contracting Chagas unless someone you live with already has the disease. Of course, if you encounter bed bugs in a hotel room or other public space, then you have no way of knowing who the bugs were previously feasting on.

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