Uproar on “kissing bugs” prompts UGA response

Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Don’t freak out over nothing.

That’s the message the University of Georgia is working to get out to residents in Henry County, and across the state, about so-called “kissing bugs.”

UGA Extension Office resource agent Frank Hancock has had lots of bugs brought in by residents who believe they are “kissing bugs.” This harmless wheel bug is one such example. Special photo

The recent uproar stems from news reports of the dangers caused by the bugs. Frank Hancock, agriculture and natural resource agent for the UGA Extension Office in McDonough, acknowledges that kissing bugs are not uncommon in Georgia, but says the health risks they pose have been blown out of proportion.

“Evidently there was a story that ran on the news on TV about Texas Kissing Bugs,” says Hancock. “The kissing bugs can carry a disease called Chagas disease. The fact is there hasn’t been a case of Chagas disease in Georgia.”

Kissing bugs, says Hancock, got their nickname because of a propensity for biting a person on the lip and other areas of the body they are drawn to. He adds that Chagas Disease is not spread by a kissing bug’s bite.

“The main thing we want to do is just kind of curb the panic,” says Hancock. “It’s less of an issue than the news report, obviously made it out to be. It alarmed people on a subject that they don’t need to be alarmed about. We just want to tell them the rest of the story, so that every time they see a bug they’re not alarmed that they’re going to catch something. When stories get started, they need to understand it’s not ever happened in Georgia. It’s not even likely that many of the bugs in Georgia are even carrying that disease. Just because you’ve got one of these bugs doesn’t mean you’re going to come down with this disease.”

Nancy Hinkle, professor of entomology at UGA, agrees with Hancock. She issues a word of caution to those who would be overly concerned about contracting Chagas Disease.

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” said Hinkle. “So far, I have not found any evidence of anyone in Georgia being infected with Chagas disease. There are people in the United States who have Chagas disease, but generally these are people who have moved the United States from South America.

Hinkle said while kissing bugs can be found in Georgia, their disease agent is found primarily in opossums, raccoons, armadillos and skunks. She added that one reason the kissing disease is so rare is because of the way it is transmitted.

“This pathogen comes out in the bug’s feces,” she said. “The bug has to defecate on your skin, and you have scratch the feces into the wound. You can get it when you swallow the bug, but most people aren’t going to do that.”

Hinkle adds that the American Red Cross conducts screenings for Chagas Disease whenever a person donates blood, and that such screenings led to cases of the disease being found in the U.S.