Chagas disease may be more prevalent in South Texas than believed

Chagas disease, a tropical parasitic infection that can cause major heart and digestive disorders, may be more prevalent in South Texas than previously thought.

New research from the University of Texas at Austin published in the medical journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases focuses on the regional prevalence of triatomine bugs, also known as “kissing bugs,” that transmit Chagas, according to

"We've been studying this for four years now, and this year the number of disease-causing insects is quite amazing," Sahotra Sarkar, a UT-Austin professor and the lead author of the study, said, reports.

Sarkar worked with Philip Williamson, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science center, to determine the proportion of the insects in South Texas that carry the protozoa Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes the disease.

A series of epidemiological maps produced by Sarkar show that much of South Texas is at high risk for infection. Sarkar said that there may already be hundreds of undiagnosed cases in existence.

Chagas can be difficult to detect because doctors in the area may be unfamiliar with it and its symptoms are similar to that of the flu, but when outward signs disappear, Chagas can continue to live in the body, sometimes reappearing in the form of digestive or heart failure.

Sarkar said that more research is needed before he can say with certainty how widespread the disease has become, but the risks are high enough to recommend that the Texas public health system adopt some low-cost changes to its management efforts, reports.

Sarkar and his team suggest that Chagas be designated a reportable disease, which would mean health professionals would be required to report incidents to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Furthermore, the state should attempt to determine how common Chagas is in its reservoirs, such as dogs and rats. They also said that the time has come to test blood donations for Chagas. Currently, screening is voluntary and only done in 65 percent of samples.