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Researchers use tiny transmitters to track Chagas disease-spreading ‘kissing bugs’

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July 10, 2018

A team of Texas A&M researchers fastened miniature radio transmitters to the backs of elusive triatomine bugs to track and study their movements in an effort to better understand their habits and it is hoped one day reduce the risk for Chagas disease.

The bugs — also known as “kissing bugs” — carry and spread Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, a neglected tropical infection endemic throughout much of Central and South America.

According to the CDC, most of the more than 300,000 people in the United States who have Chagas disease acquired their infection in a country where it is endemic. But locally transmitted cases do occur, linked mostly to outdoor activities like hunting and camping or when the bugs seek hosts in or near homes, a problem that is exacerbated by urban sprawl, according to Gabriel Hamer, PhD, assistant professor of entomology at Texas A&M University, and colleagues.

Image of a kissing bug with a radio attached to it.
Researchers outfitted Chagas disease-spreading ‘kissing bugs’ with tiny transmitters to track their movements.
Source: Gabriel Hamer, PhD, Texas A&M University/Journal of Medical Entomology.

Hamer and his team of researchers were “perplexed” by the movement and behavior of kissing bugs in Texas, including the apparent synchronous emergence of dozens of the insects from their natural habitat and their arrival in homes, according to a news release.

“Where are they coming from? How far are they traveling? Why are they dispersing?” Hamer said in the release.

In a pilot study in three counties in Texas — one of six U.S. states where Chagas disease is reportable — Hamer and colleagues glued tiny transmitters weighing 0.2 gram to the backs of kissing bugs. From 2015 to 2017, they tagged and tracked 11 kissing bugs.

According to the results of their study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, the bugs traveled an average of around 12.5 feet each day, showing that they did not move far from their resting areas. Some bugs also showed what Hamer and colleagues called “cryptic resting habits,” hiding in small, dark places, including a small slit in a dog kennel that was home to several dogs that had died of canine Chagas disease.

After several kissing bugs were found dead near where homeowners had sprayed insecticide before the trial, the researchers deduced that the insects may be sensitive to certain control compounds — an “unexpected” discovery, they said.

“Releasing tagged bugs could be used as an evaluation to see if different active ingredients successfully kill triatomines in the field,” Hamer and colleagues wrote. “This would be a particularly important trial given that no compounds are labeled for use to control triatomines in the United States.”

They said future studies could use even smaller technology to create less invasive approaches.

“Kissing bug dispersal and movement behavior is fundamentally involved in the exposure of dogs and humans to the agent of Chagas disease,” Hamer said in the release. “We hope that our research can continue to make advancements in our understanding of this kind of basic biology of the insect vector that will improve our ability to intervene and minimize Chagas disease.” – by Caitlyn Stulpin

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.