A disease that has infected millions of people in Mexico, Central America and South America is now showing up in greater numbers than had been previously reported in Texas; not in people, but in dogs.
A recently released study by researchers at Texas A&M University showed that nearly one in 10 shelter dogs had been exposed to the parasite that causes Chagas, a disease spread by insects known as kissing bugs.
The dogs were chosen from seven animal shelters across Texas, including two in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“We looked at those areas, because, potentially, they could be areas to look at from a human health standpoint as well, if the bugs are there and if dogs are infected,” said Sarah Hamer, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Texas A&M and one of the lead researchers of the shelter dog study.
Shelter dogs were chosen for the study because they have a higher risk of being exposed to kissing bugs than pet dogs do, given that their lives as strays are more likely to be spent outdoors, according to Hamer.
Chagas can cause fever, swollen lymph nodes and heart problems in people who become infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can lead to similar problems for animals.
An infected dog, however, cannot spread Chagas to a person.
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The Texas Department of State Health Services only began tracking human Chagas cases in 2013, when it noted 19 infections statewide. Of those, eight of the people were believed to have become infected here in the state, according to Christine Mann, a press officer with the state.
During that same time period, 207 Chagas cases were documented in dogs, according to the Department of State Health Services.
Kissing bugs infect people and animals by biting them and depositing parasites into the victim's blood stream.
The insects are becoming more prevalent in North Texas, according to some.
“Absolutely. We’ve actually seen an increase,” said Rodney Beaman, of Fort Worth Pest Control. “I don’t think it’s an increase in bugs. I think it’s more of an increase in awareness.”
It is awareness of Chagas that the Texas A&M researchers are hoping to raise, Hamer said.