(HealthDay News) — Residents of the southern United States may be at risk for Chagas disease, which can lead to severe heart disease and death. These findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, held from November 2–6 in New Orleans.

Chagas disease, which is transmitted by triatomine bugs (“kissing bugs”) that feed on the faces of humans at night, was once thought limited to Mexico and Central and South America. In one pilot study, Melissa Nolan Garcia, MPH, a research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and colleagues looked at 17 blood donors in Texas who tested positive for the parasite that causes Chagas disease. “We were surprised to find that 36% had evidence of being a locally acquired case,” Garcia told HealthDay. “Additionally, 41% of this presumably healthy blood donor population had heart abnormalities consistent with Chagas cardiac disease.”

In another study, Garcia’s team collected 40 insects in 11 Texas counties. They found that 73% carried the parasite and half of those had bitten humans as well as other animals, such as dogs, rabbits, and raccoons. In a third study, researchers collected data on 1,908 people whose blood tested positive for Chagas, and found that only 422 doses of medication for the infection were given by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s from 2007–2013.

“Physicians should consider Chagas when patients have swelling and enlargement of the heart not caused by high blood pressure, diabetes, or other causes, even if they do not have a history of travel,” Garcia said. However, the two treatments for this disease are “only available [in the United States] via an investigative drug protocol regulated by the CDC,” Garcia said. They are not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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