SAN ANTONIO – Chagas disease hit the South Texas radar about two years ago when three dogs at the San Antonio Humane Society had to be euthanized with the illness, but the numbers are skyrocketing in San Antonio, and health leaders are taking action.
A first-of-its-kind grant was offered to form a task force comprised of animal, insect and medical experts to figure out how to contain what could end up being a human epidemic.
The disease is the result of an insect bite from the triatomine bug, which is known as the kissing bug. Bugs infected with a deadly parasite have been in South America for many years, but it’s migrating northward and into urban areas, like San Antonio.
The bite opens a wound, and feces on the feet of the bug allows the contamination to enter your bloodstream and then lodges in the cardiac muscle, causing often deadly heart disease symptoms. Everyone is at risk, but while there is medicine for humans available to treat the symptoms through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, animals infected are often diagnosed too late to be treated.
Dr. Amin Mangla, the assistant director of Metro Health, said, "The health department, the School of Public Health and the military are now part of a collaboration to try to figure out the diagnostics of it, the entomology of it, the veterinary signs of it."
The military is involved, because military-working dogs at Lackland Air Force Base have been hit hard. Of the 350 dogs in Texas in the last few years that have been tracked with the Chagas, 71 of them came from Lackland. The Humane Society has had three cases.
It’s believed dogs like to eat the triatomine bug and are infected by ingesting the insect’s contaminated intestines.
Chief Veterinarian Dr. Courtney Bridgeman said the signs are often not obvious until it’s too late.
"The heart is what is damaged. So once you see the symptoms, which are lethargy, the dog's just not right, it doesn't really want to eat, you might see an enlarged abdomen, and the dog just doesn’t want to exercise. It takes a long time for that to be a pattern that people recognize as an issue," she said.
The only prevention that seems to work is to make sure yards are not only trimmed, but that pesticide is applied to kill the bug. The Humane Society has not had another case of the diseases since it began treating the shrubbery around its building. It’s also recommended that residents keep their animals inside at night when the insect is most active.
To learn more about the disease, visit the CDC website.
To see a map of where the infected bug can be found in Texas, click here.