Researchers study prevalence of Chagas disease in Houston

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There's a disease that researchers want you to be aware of, especially since the rate of infection is higher in Houston than the national rate.

It's called the Chagas disease, and you get it from the kissing bug.

Not everyone will develop symptoms, but if you do, fever, vomiting, rashes, fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite, and diarrhea, could arise, and that's just for the short term. 30 percent of those who are infected can go on to have serious heart problems, which is why researchers are studying how widespread the disease is in Houston.

”It's a bug that lives outside. It takes a blood meal at night, similar to a mosquito. It actually defecates on your skin at the same time that it takes a bloodmeal,” said Dr. Melissa Garcia, a faculty member of the Baylor College of Medicine.

If a person who gets bitten scratches the bite, the feces can get inside the open site, which is how Chagas disease is transmitted.
These insects are called kissing bugs because they prefer to bite humans around the eyes or mouth.

They're found throughout Texas and as high as 50 percent of the bugs are infected with Chagas, meaning a single bite could eventually lead to heart problems.

“A lot of people don’t know that they were ever exposed and don’t have any signs or symptoms of disease until they proceed into heart failure,” said Dr. Garcia.

Because of that, the disease is nicknamed the “Silent Killer.”

“About 30 percent of those that are infected will develop heart failure. What's concerning for us is that from our pilot studies here in Houston we see about 41 percent so actually a higher percentage of those infected locally,” said Dr. Garcia.

Not much is known about the disease's prevalence in Houston which is why Baylor College of Medicine is working with the TWRC Wildlife Center to find out. The study starts by testing local wildlife.

“Mammals that come into our facility that are here because they're injured or orphaned are tested, and we're supplying that information to Baylor to help them with the study,” said Roslyn Even, the exec. Director of the TWRC Wildlife Center

“By understanding areas where there's a high number or high percentage of animals that are positive, we can start targeting those areas to start testing people, so this is kind of the groundwork of human clinical studies,” said Dr. Garcia.

Baylor researchers still have a long way to go before they can test people. So far they've tested about 50 animals.

Researchers are hoping to have preliminary results by the end of the year.

Dogs are vulnerable to this disease as well.