A Most Dangerous Kiss: Chagas Disease Is Here to Stay in the United States

The “Global North” is seeing its luck with tropical parasitic diseases end. Chagas is one of those diseases, and you need to know more about it.

René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH
Microbial Instincts

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A scientist wearing purple gloves holds a large triatomine bug, commonly known as a ‘kissing bug,’ which is known for transmitting Chagas disease.
A scientist wearing purple gloves holds a large triatomine bug, commonly known as a ‘kissing bug,’ which is known for transmitting Chagas disease. (Image via CDCs Public Health Image Library.)

One of my favorite clinical rotation sites when I started the medical technology program at UT El Paso was Thomas General Hospital. (It is now University Medical Center of El Paso.) I got to see many interesting cases while working in the lab. One of those was a rare case of Chagas disease.

A patient had presented to the ER with a heart condition, and the blood smear revealed some sort of parasite floating around inside him. One of the pathologists brought me into her office to carefully look at the slides. She then pulled out a parasitology book and identified it as Chagas.

A microscopic image showing Trypanosoma parasites, which are visible as small, elongated organisms with a distinct nucleus and flagellum, among red blood cells. The image is stained, highlighting the parasites against a pinkish background of blood cells.
“This photomicrograph of a blood smear specimen, revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology exhibited by two, Trypanosoma cruzi trypomastigotes. These flagellated parasites cause the illness known as Chagas disease, or American trypanosomiasis.” (Image via CDC’s Public Health Image Library.)

It was 1998, and the internet was barely getting started. It wasn’t like we could take a picture and upload it somewhere for a consultation. We couldn’t share it online, either, hoping someone would identify it. All we had was the book and the many parasites in the blood of the patient.

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René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH
Microbial Instincts

DrPH in Epidemiology. Public Health Instructor. Father. Husband. "All around great guy."