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'Kissing bugs' are in Maryland, but they're little cause for concern

A bug that can carry a serious parasite and has been found in Delaware also has a presence in Maryland. But entomologists say it shouldn’t spark alarm among Maryland residents.

Triatomine bugs — also known as “kissing bugs” — can carry the parasite that causes Chagas disease, a condition that can lead to severe heart and gastrointestinal complications. Last July, a girl was bitten by a kissing bug in Delaware, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Delaware Department of Agriculture identified a kissing bug last week, according to news reports.

The bugs, which are nicknamed for their propensity to bite near people’s lips, also live in Maryland. But they don’t pose a huge threat to local residents.

“We’re not concerned about them,” said Gaye Williams, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “People ought to be more excited about their deer ticks and Lyme [disease].”

Although kissing bugs’ bites can be painful and cause allergic reactions, the likelihood of contracting Chagas disease from a bite is low, according to the CDC.

Kissing bugs typically live in the southern U.S., as well as Central and South America. There are 11 known species of kissing bugs in the U.S., according to the CDC. Two of them are found in Maryland, Williams said.

The adult bugs are black or dark brown with orange, yellow or red stripes that line the perimeter of their abdomen and a checkerboard-like pattern on their backs. The bugs can grow to be a little larger than a penny.

Their appearance is more interesting than the disease they can potentially carry, Williams said.

“When I see one I get excited, but that would be me,” she said.

Triatomines are nocturnal and feed on the blood of mammals (including humans), birds and reptiles. And that’s when they can transmit the parasite that causes Chagas disease to their hosts. That parasite — Trypanosoma cruzi — lives in the bugs’ intestines. The parasites are most often transmitted to humans through kissing bug feces — particularly if a kissing bug defecates near the site where it bit its host.

About half of all kissing bugs carry the parasite, according to a research team at Texas A&M University that studies Chagas disease and kissing bugs.

Chagas disease is marked by two phases — acute and chronic. Both phases can be either without symptoms or create life-threatening complications, the CDC says.

During the acute phase, mild symptoms can include fever, fatigue, aches, a rash, appetite loss, diarrhea and vomiting. Other symptoms can include swelling of the liver, spleen, glands, eyelids or the bite site, according to the CDC.

Symptoms are rarer during the chronic phase, the CDC says, but they can include an enlarged heart, heart failure, altered heart rhythm and cardiac arrest. Gastrointestinal problems can include a swollen esophagus or colon, making it difficult to eat or defecate.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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