Blood-sucking ‘kissing bug’ arrives in state

DOVER — Normally, a kiss is a good thing.

But, a smooch from Triatoma sanguisuga — the “kissing bug” — is not one you want.

According to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report published last Friday, the nocturnal-feeding disease-spreading pest made its first “official” appearance in the state.

In July 2018, a family from Kent County contacted the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH) and the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) for help identifying an insect that had bitten their child’s face, says the report.

Upon investigation, DPH learned the family resided in an older single-family home near a heavily wooded area. A window air conditioning unit was located in the bedroom where the bite occurred. The family reported no recent travel outside the local area.

At first, the insect was identified as Triatoma sanguisuga by staff members from DDA, says the report. Triatomines are blood-sucking insects that feed on mammals, and get their nickname by their tendency for biting the faces of humans.

Although the kissing bug is known for its ability to spread the deadly Chagas disease, the girl who was bitten suffered no ill effects. The collected bug specimen later tested negative for the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes the disease.

The Delaware Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that because the risk of exposure and infection are low, “there is not currently a threat to the public.”

After collecting the specimen last year DPH and DDA jointly contacted Texas A&M University’s Kissing Bug Citizen Science Program, a multidisciplinary research program aimed at documenting and collecting kissing bugs from across the United States. They too arrived at the same identification. The insect was also sent to the CDC, where species-level identification was “morphologically confirmed.”

This finding represents the first confirmed identification of T. sanguisuga in Delaware. Texas A&M had received a previous report of a suspected kissing bug in July 2017 from Kent County. That insect was found dead with no reported human exposure. By a photo Texas A&M identified it as a kissing bug, but a physical inspection by a “local institution” had initially identified it as a milkweed bug and destroyed it before the university had been contacted and no follow-up definitive identification could be made. It’s unclear what local institution this was.

Deadly kiss

The kissing bug is considered a vector that can transmit Trypanosoma cruzi which causes potentially deadly Chagas disease, says the CDC. However, contracting the illness in the United States is considered rare.

Chagas disease can cause serious cardiac and gastrointestinal complications. CDC estimates that approximately 300,000 persons with Chagas disease live in the United States, and most were infected with T. cruzi in the parts of Latin America where Chagas disease is found. Though Triatomine bugs are found in the United States, only a few cases of Chagas disease from contact with these bugs have been documented.

Currently, there is no current evidence of T. cruzi in Delaware, says the CDC.
T. cruzi is a zoonotic parasite that infects many mammal species and is found throughout the southern half of the United States. Even where T. cruzi is circulating, not all triatomine bugs are infected with the parasite. The likelihood of human T. cruzi infection from contact with a triatomine bug in the United States is low, even when the bug is infected.

Tempered concern

Though he says the kissing bug is a “pest of public health importance” and should not be ignore, National Pest Management Association’s Chief Entomologist Dr. Jim Fredericks says the average Delawarean shouldn’t panic about the revelation for several reasons. Firstly, he suspects the insect has likely already been living in the state undetected.

“This particular species of kissing bug has a broad distribution range in the United States — I wasn’t surprised to hear that it was found in Delaware, I was actually more surprised that this was the first time it was reported,” he said. “Its current range runs from Pennsylvania down to Florida and all the way west to Texas. We can’t say for certain, but I speculate that the kissing bug isn’t a ‘new’ arrival to Delaware and that the one that was found isn’t the only one. Having them in Pennsylvania and Maryland, there’s just no reason to think they wouldn’t be in Delaware.”

Further, Dr. Fredericks says the kissing bug species in question is a “poor host” for the feared disease-causing T. cruzi.

“This particular species is not a particularly good vector of that disease — it is capable of carrying the organism responsible and it does sometimes, but that’s more common in central and south America,” he said. “When in nature, the kissing bug here are feeding on raccoons, possums and animals like that — not a lot of those pathogens are found in these hosts so you just don’t get the same amount of transition.”

Perhaps the biggest protective, Dr. Fredericks says, is the design of most homes in the United States.

“With the way a lot of our houses are designed these bugs are sealed out — we’re also a lot more likely to notice a large, biting bug in the house and take care of it quickly,” he said.

Though he doesn’t feel the average Delawarean is exposed to a lot of risk from the kissing bug, Dr. Fredericks said the news is a good opportunity for residents to examine their homes for insect entry points.

“It’s not cause for a panic, but there’s no reason to not be alter — but that goes for all pests of public health importance,” he said. “I’d recommend looking through the house and conducting your own pest assessment. Look for any crack or crevasses, check your screens and especially make sure that door thresholds seal tightly when closed. When in doubt, call a pest control specialist.”

For additional pest prevention resources and information, visit the NPMA’s consumer education website at pestworld.org.

Prevention measures

To prevent attracting kissing bugs, the CDC recommends the following:
• Locate outdoor lights away from dwellings such as homes, dog kennels and chicken coops and turn off lights that are not in use
• Remove trash, wood and rock piles from around the home
• Clear out any bird and animal nests from around the home
• Inspect and seal any cracks and gaps around windows, air conditioners, walls, roofs, doors and crawl spaces
• Tightly close chimney flues when not in use
• Use screens on all doors and windows
• Have pets sleep indoors, especially at night
• Use a licensed pest control professional for insect control

For more information on Chagas and its transmission, visit cdc.gov/parasites/chagas/.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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