Bug tracked to Mid-South could potentially kill people, pets - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Bug tracked to Mid-South could potentially kill people, pets

(WMC-TV) - Scientists call it the "kiss of death." The "kiss" comes from a tiny bug that can actually kill humans and pets.

The bugs have long been a problem in South American countries but they made their way closer to home and are now infiltrating the Mid-South.

Their scientific name is Triatoma but the insect, which has colorful markings, is better known as the ‘kissing bug'.

Do not let the romantic name fool you. They are bloodthirsty intruders that transmit a deadly disease.

"It has a mouth part that it uses to suck food and in this case blood," said University of Memphis Biological Scientist Dr. Duane McKenna.

Dr. McKenna said some kissing bugs transmit Chagas disease, a potentially fatal illness that attacks the heart and nervous system.

Chagas disease kills thousands of people each year in Central America and South America.

While cases of Chagas disease are rarely seen in the United States, two species of kissing bugs carrying the disease have been discovered in Tennessee and Shelby County.

"The insect has been here. The causative agent of the disease has been around. It's not something new," said Dr. Daniel Sprenger, Shelby County Health Department.

What might surprise you is that it is not the kissing bug's bite that transmits the disease. Instead, it is the bug's feces that transmits the disease.

"It's only when that waste gets rubbed into a wound that one can get the disease," said Dr. McKenna.

Action News 5 asked entomologist Carl Olsen how an insect with such a disgusting habit got a seemingly harmless nickname.

"They'll feed on any naked skin but they just don't want to climb under material," said Olsen.

So they go for the face, mostly at night as you sleep.

Bill Savary and his wife turned their home into a fortress after Bill developed an allergic reaction from multiple kissing bug bites.

"My tongue started swelling. I turned to talk to her to say something's wrong. Only it didn't come out well because my tongue was sticking half out of my mouth," said Bill Savary.

The Savarys live in Tucson, Arizona, where an estimated 40 percent of kissing bugs carry the pathogen that causes Chagas disease.

No one has been infected yet and nobody knows why.

Kissing bugs may pose the biggest threat to our pets. Experts say it is the animals that are the preferred feeding ground.

"It was through illness in dogs that was really brought to our attention," said Dr. Sprenger.

When the Tennessee Department of Health tested 860 dogs, more than 6 percent tested positive for the parasite.

Now more than ever, humans are being tested.

If you have ever donated blood, you may have heard of Chagas disease. It is a question on Lifeblood's donor screening application.

"We conduct more than a dozen infectious disease tests and we test for Chagas disease," said Jennifer Balenk, Lifeblood.

Experts say you are more likely to contract Chagas disease from someone who has visited South America than by being bitten by a kissing bug.

But there is no guarantee against the kiss of death.

"Can't say 100 percent it won't happen, but I can say the probability is pretty low," said Olsen.

Copyright 2012 WMC-TV. All rights reserved.



Wondering what this evil bug looks like? View a slideshow of 'Kissing bug' photos 'The Kissing Bug' will air tonight on Action News 5 at 10 p.m. More>>

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