The initial symptoms of Chagas disease can be vague, including fever and swelling around one eye and at the site of the bug bite. The disease can go into remission and reemerge years later as a more serious illness, resulting in potentially deadly digestive and heart problems.
The bug's saliva also can lead to severe allergic reactions.
Researchers theorized the bug hasn't become more widespread in the United States because most homes in the country are made with concrete basements, screened doors and windows, and tighter construction. In contrast, kissing bugs have thrived among the thatched roofs, stick-and-mud construction and dirt floors found in rural and poor regions of Central and South America.
Another theory is that unlike the kissing bugs found in other countries, the species found in the United States do not defecate while they are feeding on their host. As a result, there is less opportunity for the parasite that causes Chagas disease to enter the bloodstream.
One way to prevent the spread of Chagas disease is to use screens or close windows at night. Campers should close their tents or sleeping bags.
The study's authors said they hoped to examine a larger sample of kissing bugs from more areas in the United States.
"Chagas isn't going to spread fast, but it could spread," Stevens said. "Finding out how prevalent it is now would be a good idea."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more information on Chagas disease.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
SOURCE: University of Vermont, news release, March 15, 2012
All rights reserved