Chagas Disease

Credit: Penn Medicine/Robert Press

What it is

Chagas (CHAH-gus) disease is an inflammatory, infectious disease caused by a parasite found in the feces of the triatomine (reduviid) bug. Chagas disease is common in South America, Central America and Mexico, the primary home of the triatomine bug. Rare cases of Chagas disease have been found in the southern United States, as well.

Also called American trypanosomiasis, Chagas disease can infect anyone, but is diagnosed most often in children. Left untreated, Chagas disease later can cause serious heart and digestive problems.

Relationship to Bed Bugs

Bed bugs have traditionally not been thought of as carriers of disease. A recent study from Penn Medicines researchers in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics demonstrated that bed bugs, like triatomines, can transmit Tyupanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, one of the most prevalent and deadly diseases in the Americas.

American Journal of Tropical Medicine and HygieneThe 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 welts from bites and sleepless nights.

In their study published online this week in the iAmerican Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, senior author Michael Z. Levy, PhD, assistant professor in the department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and researchers at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Peru conducted a series of laboratory experiments that demonstrated bi-directional transmission of T. cruzi between mice and bed bugs.