Medical breakthrough may slow lethal parasite’s migration to Colorado

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photo: kissing bugIf you’ve ever given blood you had to answer a lot of questions about your health. One of those: do you have Chagas disease? You probably checked no -- as most people in the United States do because they’ve never heard of it.

The parasite can lurk silently in the body for years, so a blood donor could accidently pass it on without knowing they are a carrier. The tiny bug -- about the size of a red blood cell -- takes up residence in the heart or lungs and it can cause organ failure a decade later.

However, a medical breakthrough could prevent blood transfusions from passing along Chagas. A recent study by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization shows that six different field tests can quickly screen for the disease. Rapid and accurate tests could speed up diagnosis and prevent the illness from spreading.

Although it is a very rare illness in the U.S., Chagas is spreading north through migration. There have been a handful of cases in Colorado. However, millions of people are infected in Latin America, primarily in Brazil. The disease kills about 21,000 people every year, according to a University of Arizona report.

The parasite's lifecycle could make for a gruesome horror film. It is transmitted via a bloodsucking beetle (Triatominae; a subfamily of Reduviidae) also known as the kissing beetle.

The insect withdraws blood like a mosquito. After feasting, the kissing bug defecates on a human host. Then when the victime rubs their eyes or nose they could unwittingly rub the parasite's fecal matter into their mucous membranes. Initially, it shows up like a mild infection but it can be deadly years later.