'Kissing bug' makes its way into Texas

HOUSTON – A Latin American disease is making its way through Texas and the southern part of the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies it as a neglected parasitic infection called Chagas.

Although it's known as the "kissing bug," it's not as cute as it sounds - it's a parasite that typically feeds on people's faces.

This week researchers from Houston met with tropical disease experts to discuss the growing concern in Texas.

Chagas, once a disease thought to be limited to Mexico, Central and South America, is now infecting about 300,000 people in the lower half of the United States, according to the CDC.

"I think we are likely under-diagnosing and mismanaging a lot of Houstonians and a lot of Texas residents with this disease. So it really is imperative that we start screening people that are at high risk," said Melissa Garcia, Baylor College of Medicine research associate. "If you don't get treatment it can progress and it can be fatal."

Speaking via Skype from a conference about the parasite, Garcia told Local 2 that in her research she found people may be transmitting Chagas by blood transfusions since many are unaware they are carriers.

"We did a study looking at blood donors and found that one out of every 6,500 Texans is potentially infected with this disease," she said.

Many people can be asymptomatic, or those with symptoms (such as swelling) can simply be misdiagnosed with other things. If they haven't traveled to Latin American countries, the disease might not be on the doctors' radar.

"I think we really need to increase physician awareness. In the state but also nationally as well, it's something physicians really haven't heard of despite evidence of it growing and establishing itself here in Texas," Garcia said.

The real danger is that 30 percent of those infected develop heart disease. That's why Garcia suggests more blood screenings should be available to people who know they've been bitten, hunters and campers who frequent the woods and urban dwellers in older housing.

"People that might live in substandard housing that haven't been able to take care of their house as well as they should could really have nests of these living in their house as well. That 1920's bungalow that we're famous for could have nests of these vectors under the house," she said.

Once someone has been bitten, Garcia said there's no way of knowing if they will be among the 30 percent to develop heart disease and there's no way of knowing what the other 70 percent of infected, but unaware, patients are doing to put others at risk.

There is a cure for Chagas, but the vaccine is in short supply and it's not FDA-approved, so a doctor would have to go directly to the CDC for a prescription.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine also want to begin screening people with heart disease to see if Chagas is to blame.