The next insect that I am discussing has also been making the rounds on Facebook: the insect colloquially known as the”Kissing Bug”. You may have seen posts decrying the danger of this bug, posts with headings like: “Deadly ‘kissing bug’ spreads; bites you as you sleep” and “Beware the kissing bug!”. This alarmist tone has created panic amongst internet users, many who now find themselves clutching a loved one every time they see a beetle trundling across the floor (there is even a website devoted to “confirming your kissing bug encounter” that displays all types of insects that people are misidentifying as kissing bugs- there is quite an array). But what are these creatures? Is there truly cause for alarm? Is the human race really doomed? Let’s find out a little more about them before we give ourselves over to the fear that has gripped the Facebook nation.
Kissing bugs are actually called Triatomines, a name which doesn’t refer to one specific bug but rather the entire 130 species that make up the subfamily of the “assassin bug” or Reduviidae. What sets triatomines apart from their relatives is that they are what scientists refer to as
hematophagous (blood suckers) as opposed to being predators (murderous killers) like members of the rest of their family. Although both species can be readily identified by their giant probosces, triatomines use their appendages to suck blood while other assassin bugs practice extraoral digestion (they use their proboscis like a hypodermic needle, injecting lethal saliva into their victims, liquifying their innards, and drinking the remains). While it is a laudable distinction that triatomines do not have to dispatch their victims in order to eat they sometimes visit an equally unpleasant fate upon the mammal they are dining on: disease. Hematophagous insects are commonly vectors of disease; guilty of spreading viruses, bacteria and parasites around the world. Malaria, Lyme disease, bubonic plague and dengue fever are all examples of infectious diseases that are spread through the bite of infected insects. Triatomines are one of the main culprits in the spread of Chagas disease- a parasitic infection caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi. Chagas disease causes both acute and chronic conditions. Affecting the nervous system, digestive system and heart, Chagas can be fatal if not treated early, usually from the heart muscle damage it causes.
The good news, at least for those of us living in the US- particularly northern regions (and here I will freely admit “Husband, get me a goat” is an incredibly regionally biased publication), Chagas disease is of relatively little threat. In reports from the CDC and other reputable sources I could only find between 7 and 44 verified cases where triatomines were responsible for the infection of people within the US. However, estimates of people carrying Chagas disease in the US are significantly higher because of the number of people emigrating from rural Latin America, where Chagas is endemic, to the US. It appears that although the US is inhabited by both triatomines and individuals infected with Chagas, the conditions in which people are regularly coming into contact with these insects are not as common in the US. Additionally, several studies have shown that the rate of infection is actually very low, with an estimated 1 case of Chagas disease per 900 to 4,000 infected triatomine-human interactions.
So with little evidence of its threat to the general population of the US, why are people so worked up about this bug? I think the answer lies somewhere between its stabby proboscis and its anus. Triatomines aggregate together in rocks and crevices during the day and like so many other disreputable creatures (see possums, bats, frat boys) only emerge when the sun goes down. Attracted to carbon dioxide
and the other various compounds that mammals unwittingly emit- the scent of a sweaty, snoring human is irresistible to a triatomine. These inadvertent beacons send them into a probing frenzy, sounding their probosces on all sorts of surfaces until they find the perfect spot. As their street name “kissing bug” implies, triatomines generally bite a person’s face or lips; the insects prefer a spot in close proximity to the vent emitting that sweet, sweet CO2. Interestingly, unlike most other insect vectors the triatomine does not spread it’s parasitic load through it’s bite. It is guilty of an action far more odious. Triatomines infect their victims by unceremoniously defecating into the lesion they created to feed upon the blood of their victims. This sinister night stalker is not only predating your delicious face meat but also has the audacity to use you as a toilet-willfully exposing you to its parasite riddled feces. Long and short of it is: this bug is a real asshole.
As I mentioned in my last post the purpose of my research was not to find ways to terrorize you but to get to truly get to the bottom of whether the threat these insects pose is real or is being inflated. In the case of the triatomine the answer is a bit complicated. Chagas disease is indeed endemic in parts of the America’s, in fact it’s the leading parasitic disease in the Western Hemisphere, so it is important
that we recognize its potential to do harm to many human beings. However for the average North American Facebook user a midnight tango with a triatomine is an unlikely event and even unlikelier still is that such an event would lead to the contraction of Chagas. Alarmist posts are perpetuated not to warn of actual danger, but because they speak to our deepest, darkest fears- fears which are generally not rational. The reality is that we are far, far more likely to have an encounter with a mosquito or tick in the next few months as the weather warms, but I would be very surprised if anyone is losing sleep about this fact. There is just something fundamentally unsettling about the triatomine’s behavior. Perhaps because, in the words of Ween, everyone knows you just “don’t shit where you eat”.
For more information on Chagas disease in the US:
Or if you prefer something a bit more spurious a la youtube: