By Amber Soland/Special to Bear Essential News
**Editors Note: A shorter version of this story runs in the Bear Essential News' July 2017 issue**
It was a warm spring morning when freelance photographer John de Dios awoke to discover he had been attacked by kissing bugs. “At first, I thought they were mosquito bites, but then they swelled up and became really painful and itchy,” de Dios said.
The bites were actually from kissing bugs.
Before then, de Dios had only heard of the bugs. “I mean, in Tucson you’ve always got people talking about them,” de Dios said.
Kissing bugs are a type of Hemiptera, often called “true bugs.” Found in the Western Hemisphere, kissing bugs are characterized by a cone-shaped head, flat body and distinctive red or orange markings along their back, said Gene Hall, the collections manager at the University of Arizona Insect Collection.
“[Hemipterids] all have piercing and sucking mouth parts,” Hall said. “Most of them are plant feeders, but there are some that are predatory on other insects, and some are blood feeders—like kissing bugs.”
These blood-sucking creatures bite people and their pets. Kissing bugs hide in small cracks in houses or between rocks for most of the year, preferring warm temperatures for feeding.
Kissing bugs sparked the interest of a handful of researchers, including Shannon Smith, a program director at the UA College of Medicine. She and two other researchers from the UA, infectious disease specialist Stephen Klotz and entomologist Justin Schmidt, partnered with the Cochise County Health Department to study kissing bugs in Bisbee, Arizona. The trio wanted to examine the bugs’ behavior and people’s responses to their bites.
“Previous to my joining the project, they [Klotz and Schmidt] had noticed there was a high volume of reported bites from kissing bugs in a particular area in Bisbee,” Smith said.
Bisbee is filled with 20th-century houses. The shifting of the ground has created small crevices between rocks and structural breaches in the buildings where kissing bugs and other insects hide.
The UA team spent last summer traveling to and from Bisbee, collecting and studying kissing bugs and surveying the public about their experiences with the insects. Eventually, however, it grew too cold for the bugs to be active.
With the return of warm weather, the bugs have reappeared, and research is underway again. “Just recently, the temperature has gone up enough in the Cochise County area that we’re starting to get calls and reports of bites,” Smith said. “We’re really amping it [the study] up for the summer.”
The researchers will continue the study with some minor upgrades to their methods and technology. A far more detailed survey will identify the structure of the homes where bites are reported, the frequency of bites and risk factors. New technology will effectively remove most kissing bugs from homes reporting bites.
Kissing bugs are “clumsy fliers” because they recklessly fly toward any light source at night, Schmidt said. The researchers take advantage of this behavior by simply hanging a sheet behind some lights. The kissing bugs fly toward the lights, hit the sheet and lose their balance. The researchers then collect the fallen insects and compile information from the specimens.
“We’re just going to have a higher level of data to really assess what’s going on with respect to the bites,” Smith said.
Studying the bugs is crucial to finding a way to help keep people from being bitten, which can trigger anaphylactic shock and Chagas disease.
Anaphylactic shock is an extreme, often life-threatening allergic reaction to an antigen or toxin to which the body has become hypersensitive. It can occur in victims of kissing bug bites. An allergic reaction often develops after someone is bitten repeatedly.
About half of the kissing bugs in Texas carry Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, according to Texas A&M University. This affliction occurs only in the Western Hemisphere. In its chronic phase, Chagas disease can cause heart and intestinal problems—and even death.
Chagas disease can only be transmitted if the kissing bug defecates in the wound while feeding, a behavior common among species in Central and South America.
Few cases of Chagas disease occur in the United States because the kissing bugs here “behave a little differently,” according to public health entomologist Dawn Gouge. “The critical difference and the reason why we don’t have many reported cases of Chagas disease is because they [kissing bugs] like to feed and then fly away to a quiet place to digest,” she said.
The UA study is helping raise awareness about allergic reactions to kissing bug bites and Chagas disease in the medical community and the public, Smith said. It is difficult for communities to find an affordable way to test for Chagas disease.
This year, however, the UA researchers were fortunate to offer people an alternative to expensive lab tests. This cheaper test, which does not use a lab, determines if those bitten by the kissing bug are at risk of being infected with Chagas disease.
Smith believes that the Bisbee medical community is invested in this project, so anyone who goes into anaphylaxis from a kissing bug bite or sees the flu-like symptoms of Chagas disease will receive prompt medical attention.
“How to protect yourself from more bites—that’s the most important thing,” Smith said.
The City of Bisbee, Ariz., is under siege by bloodsucking kissing bugs that are vectors for Chagas' disease and UA researchers are trying to find cheaper, more accessible means for bug-bite prevention and treatment. Cover Image is courtesy of Kevin Dooley/Wikipedia Commons
This story was originally published in The Chronicle, a Dow Jones News Fund Diversity in Journalism Workshop publication for which Bear Essential News was the media sponsor. Amber Soland, currently a senior attending Tucson High Magnet School. This story is one of the select stories from The Chronicle that were selected to be published on Bear Essential News publications. Visit their website here.