The kissing bug leaves its mark in L.A.

An online classmate of mine  at UCLA who lives in Costa Rica said one of the dangers of living there is an insect known as La Chinche Besucona, or the Kissing Bug.  The bug,  indigenous to South America,  survives in adobe or straw huts and likes to bite a victim on or near the face, injecting a bacteria.  The bacteria later can cause Chagas disease, a rare deadly illness that brings on heart failure.  The only place in the United States that treats Chagas disease is at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.  The clinic and how Doctors Without Borders is working to find better treatments.  Here’s the story I wrote  (Daily News, 2009) about Chagas Disease.

SYLMAR – The telephone call came three days after Maira Gutierrez donated blood.

“Are you by yourself?” the woman from the American Red Cross asked Gutierrez.

If not, she said, go into another room. They needed to talk in private.

In an indirect way, the woman told Gutierrez that the blood she donated was useless, that a deadly parasite had been found mingling with her plasma, platelets and cells.

The disease, the woman said, was so rare that little information, and surely no treatment, existed. And, Gutierrez later learned from a two-page pamphlet, her survival rate was slim.

For 10 years after that telephone call, Gutierrez – now 36 and living in Mission Hills – wondered not if her heart would stop, but when.

She went from doctor to doctor, specialists who drew her blood, again and again.

No one, not even the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gutierrez realized, had much information on Chagas disease.

“A doctor told me there was no treatment, when in fact, there was,” Gutierrez said.

One hundred years after the disease was discovered and named after Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, little awareness still exists, even though millions of people carry a parasite within them that can lay dormant for years, then cause heart disease, and finally death.

“There are 10 to 15 million who have Chagas,” said Gemma Ortiz, who heads the Chagas campaign for Doctors Without Borders.

This year, the organization vows to “break the silence” of Chagas disease, which kills nearly 14,000 each year.

“One hundred years later, the disease continues to be transmitted to lots of people,” Ortiz said. “And as people move around and the world is becoming a more global place, we see it in North America, Japan, Europe and Australia.”

What is known is that those who have lived in or visited rural areas in Mexico or South America are more likely to have come across Chagas disease.

The disease is caused by an inch-long insect known as “la chinche besucona” or “the kissing bug.”

An infected insect, which hides in dwellings made from mud, adobe, straw or palm thatch, crawls out at night to feed on blood. It is called the kissing bug because it feeds on a sleeper’s face.

After it bites, the insect defecates on the open wound. The infection begins when parasites from the bug enter the body through mucous membranes or broken skin, caused when the sleeper scratches the wound, eyes or mouth, according to the CDC.

Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, body aches, headaches, rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting. But sometimes there are no symptoms at all, until decades later.

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