Kissing bugs in New Orleans may carry the kiss of death
Don Ames Reporting
When Loyola University biology professor Dr. Patricia Dorn, in collaboration with researchers at Tulane University and Louisiana State University Health Sciences centers, discovered the first case of deadly Chagas disease acquired in Louisiana, they knew they had evidence of a troubling trend.
Chagas disease, West Nile and other neglected tropical diseases are emerging as health threats in the state.
Experts are concerned that post-hurricane conditions create an ideal environment for insects that transmit the tropical diseases.
Chagas is the leading cause of heart disease in Latin America and it's carried by kissing bugs, not to be confused with our lovebugs.
Dr. Dorn says they're found throughout the bottom two-thirds of the U.S.
"They're not uncommon at all in the New Orleans area," she says. "In fact, we've collected more than 500 of the kissing bugs in New Orleans. We're finding that the bugs are in contact with humans and are feeding on them quite frequently."
And, she says the kissing bugs found in this area are nasty critters...more so than the ones found their endemic areas of Latin America.
"The bugs that are here are highly infected," she says. "More than half of them are carrying the Chagas parasite."
The parasite doesn't limit its victims to people.
"We've lost many dogs, especially around the Atchafalaya Basin, to Chagas Disease."
Dorn says the disease itself has been highly neglected, because it generally afflicts the poor.
"The kissing bugs live mostly in substandard housing, so they're more likely to be in houses that are poorly constructed."
That, she says, may be changing. "These diseases are emerging as silent killers in the Southern U.S., even here in New Orleans. While these tropical diseases are often neglected in terms of funding for research and treatments, it's important the community knows how very real these problems are in our state and in the world."
Approximately 300,000 people in the U.S. are infected with Chagas disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Dorn says the kissing bugs feed at night. "If I were sleeping out in a camp, I'd sleep under a mosquito net."
That's also good protection from mosquitoes carrying the all too familiar West Nile virus.
And, there's another scare out there...one that most folks have likely only encountered in their reading of the bible.
"Leprosy is actually on the increase in Louisiana, because it's present in our armadillos," says Dorn.
Call it Louisiana's curse of the Cajun culture.
"This may be one of the last places that still has leprosy, because people continually get infected from handling armadillos."
She says Dr. Raoult Ratard, state epidemiologist with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, backs her up on that claim.