Chagus disease could be contracted from bed bugs, according to a new study out of Penn State.
Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes the disease, could be carried by the tiny insects, found in beds and upholstered furniture in homes and businesses everywhere.
Chagas disease is most common in South America and Central America, but is starting to spread to the United States. Between six and 8 million people each year are diagnosed with the illness, around 50,000 of whom die each year from the sickness.
Approximately 300,000 Americans are currently living with Chagas Disease, nearly all of whom contracted the illness in Central or South America.
The illness is most commonly delivered by the kissing bug, which feeds, each night, on human feces, before climbing up on the faces of sleeping human targets. Bed bugs are now thought to be capable of spreading the potentially dangerous disease.
"We've shown that the bed bug can acquire and transmit the parasite. Our next step is to determine whether they are, or will become, an important player in the epidemiology of Chagas disease," Michael Z. Levy, of the University of Pennsylvania, said.
Levy and his team were able to show that T. cruzi could be transmitted to mice from bed bugs. This does not prove that the tiny insects can transmit the parasite to humans, but suggest a possible route of infection.
Researchers exposed a total of 2,000 uninfected bed bugs, 20 at a time, to ten mice infected with the parasite over the course of 30 days. A majority of the insects acquired the dangerous parasite from the rodents. A second segment of the experiment showed three-quarters of mice exposed to infected bed bugs soon tested positive for the disease.
Feces of infected bed bugs was applied to the skin of rodents after the surface was irritated by needle scratches or bites from the insect. Of the ten mice in this part of the experiment, four were infected by the disease. Researchers were also able to prove that bed bugs defecate as they feed, increasing the risk of exposure.
If this study is independently confirmed, it could change the idea of bed bugs as meddlesome, but harmless, insects.
"Bed bugs, a problem worldwide, are resurging, causing property loss, expense, and inconvenience. The good news is that bed bugs do not transmit disease," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2013.
Study of possible transmission of Chagas disease by bed bugs was profiled in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.