Up until this point we’ve been under the assumption that bed bugs, though gross and psychologically freaky, do not pose a danger to humans by transmitting any diseases (unlike mosquitoes or ticks).
The bed bug may be just as dangerous as its sinister cousin, the triatomine, or “kissing” bug. A new study from Penn Medicine researchers in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics demonstrated that bed bugs, like the triatomines, can transmit Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, one of the most prevalent and deadly diseases in the Americas.
The role of the bloodsucking triatomine bugs as vectors of Chagas disease—which affects 6 to 8 million worldwide, mostly in Latin America, and kills about 50,000 a year—has long been recognized. The insects infect people not through their bite but feces, which they deposit on their sleeping host, often around the face, after feeding. Bed bugs, on the other hand, are usually considered disease-free nuisances whose victims are left with only itchy welts from bites and sleepless nights.
More people in the U.S. are infected with T. cruzi now than ever before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the number of Chagas disease cases in the U.S. today could be as high as 300,000.
“There have always been triatomine bugs and cases of Chagas disease in the U.S., but the kissing bugs we have here don’t come into homes frequently like the more dangerous species in South and Central America do,” Levy said. “I am much more concerned about the role of bed bugs. They are already here—in our homes, in our beds and in high numbers. What we found has thrown a wrench in the way I think about transmission, and where Chagas disease could emerge next.”
Equally worrying is the invasion of bed bugs into areas where Chagas disease is prevalent, especially in countries where traditional insect vectors of the parasite have been nearly eliminated, Levy said. In these areas, bed bugs will be repeatedly exposed to T. cruzi, and could re-spark transmission where it had been extinguished.
“Bed bugs are harder to kill than triatomines due to their resistance to common insecticides.” Levy said. “No one is prepared for large scale bed bug control. If the parasite starts to spread through bed bugs, decades of progress on Chagas disease control in the Americas could be erased, and we would have no means at our disposal to repeat what had been accomplished.”
Often referred to as a silent killer, Chagas disease is hard to diagnose in its early stages because the symptoms are mild or absent. The parasites are hidden mainly in the heart and digestive muscle and over time can cause cardiac disorders and sometimes digestive or neurological problems. In later years, the infection can lead to sudden death or heart failure caused by progressive destruction of the heart muscle. Although there are some drugs to treat Chagas disease, they become less effective the longer a person is infected.
The long asymptomatic period of Chagas disease complicates surveillance for new outbreaks of transmission. In Arequipa, Peru, thousands became infected with the parasite before a case appeared in the hospital. The same could happen in cities in the United States if the parasite were to emerge in the bed bug populations, the authors say.
The best solution to keeping your family & yourself safe from this potential disease is to keep the bed bugs from infesting your home. We can help do a thorough inspection of your home and treatment if you suspect bed bug activity. The worst thing you can do is to ignore a possible problem.