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Illegal-Carried, Deadly Chagas Disease Infects 100s
of Federal Govt Working Dogs Across the US

By Patricia Doyle PhD
Exclusive To

Published Date: 2018-11-02 23:41:00 Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - USA (03): canine  Archive Number: 20181102.6123966


A ProMED-mail post
ProMED-mail is a program of the
International Society for Infectious Diseases

Date: Wed 31 Oct 2018
Source: Phys.Org [edited] tropical-disease-heart- problems-dogs.html

More than 100 working dogs employed by the federal government across the USA have been infected with the parasite _Trypanosoma cruzi_, the cause of Chagas disease, which may lead to heart problems, according to a new study presented today [Wed 31 Oct 2018] at the annual meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). Chagas disease is a tropical infection spread by a blood-sucking triatomine, or "kissing bug," that may pose a growing threat in the USA.

Once known only in Mexico, Central America, and South America, Chagas is now making tentative incursions into the USA, infecting both canines and humans. But for either, the extent of the risk is not clearly defined.

"We were surprised to find so many dogs, including those working outside of the kissing bug range, had been exposed to the parasite _T. cruzi_ and were exhibiting heart abnormalities associated with the disease," said Alyssa Meyers, a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University who presented the findings.

The _T. cruzi_ parasite is transmitted through the feces of kissing bugs, so called due to their tendency to feed around the mouth. Infections in humans or dogs initially can produce a fever and fatigue. But even infections that produce no symptoms can lead to an enlarged heart or abnormal heart rhythms that can cause sudden death.

Meyers said because kissing bugs can thrive in locations with high concentrations of hosts, like dog kennels, dogs in training facilities could be at risk for exposure. These dogs train at facilities in Texas and Virginia, 2 states with known populations of kissing bugs that carry the Chagas parasite, and it is likely that some dogs were exposed while training in the south.

"From previous studies, we knew that shelter and stray dogs were at risk for exposure, likely because of their time spent outdoors. Perhaps the dogs working along the USA-Mexico border, who spend long hours outside, often at night, might be equally exposed," she said. "We were not expecting infection in dogs spending most of their time working along the border with Canada or in airports in Nebraska."

Meyers and fellow researchers at Texas A&M University worked with colleagues from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect and test blood samples from 1660 working dogs in 43 states; these dogs have duties such as border patrol, search and rescue, detecting drugs and explosives, and assisting officers who guard federal buildings. The testing -- which was prompted by evidence of Chagas in dogs working on the Mexican border -- revealed that 121 dogs, or more than 7 percent tested, had antibodies to _T. cruzi_, indicating an ongoing infection. Many of the infected dogs also showed signs of heart abnormalities associated with Chagas that can be fatal.

Meyers said in South America, dogs have served as effective sentinels to provide early warning of Chagas risk to humans, though dogs themselves pose little direct risk of infecting humans. But Meyers added that uncertainty about where the infected dogs picked up the parasite -- including dogs now working in states within the kissing bug range -- makes it difficult to say what the findings mean for human risks.

Most human cases diagnosed in the USA are believed to have been caused by infections picked up in Latin America. But there have been documented cases of locally acquired infections in some of the southern states (Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas). This has prompted regular surveillance in some states. Kissing bugs are now found in 27 states and as far north as Delaware. And a growing number of those bugs are known to be carrying the Chagas parasite.

Meyers said the discovery of a relatively high rate of Chagas infections in working dogs is not necessarily an indication of an increasing threat to people. "A positive dog usually signals that infected kissing bugs are in the environment," Meyers noted. "But the risk to humans is likely not equal to dogs, in part because dogs have a tendency to eat bugs that could be infected with the parasite, and dogs spend more time outdoors." Also, studies show that, unlike the kissing bugs that transmit Chagas in Mexico and Central America, the varieties found in the USA are less likely to infest houses, significantly reducing encounters with humans.

Meanwhile, there is concern about how the disease may affect working dogs exposed to the disease, given the many important functions they provide. For example, in 2009, several military working dogs serving alongside US troops conducting bomb-detection work in Iraq had to be evacuated due to heart problems linked to Chagas infections, leaving troops without an important member of their team.

"Not all dogs that are exposed to the parasite develop cardiac disease. Many can live a happy, healthy life," Meyers said. "We are trying to understand why some dogs remain asymptomatic, while others develop Chagas cardiomyopathy. These dogs play a critical role in our country's security, and we want to make sure we are doing everything we can do to keep them healthy."

To learn more about the effect of Chagas on the DHS dogs, a subset of the infected dogs were outfitted with wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors that allowed researchers to obtain 24 hours of data on cardiac performance. "We just pulled the dogs aside for a few minutes to put on the monitors, and then they went right back to work," Meyers said.

The monitors revealed over 2/3 of the infected dogs were showing early signs of cardiac problems associated with Chagas. The dogs are now being monitored for any signs of progression of cardiac problems. But there are no treatments available specifically for dogs infected with Chagas disease, and the researchers said that medications used to protect dogs from fleas and ticks are not known to repel either kissing bugs or the Chagas parasite. There are drugs available to treat human infections, but their efficacy varies and is especially low for infections that have been lingering for a long period undetected.

A follow-up study is planned to explore interventions that potentially help the DHS dogs avoid exposure to kissing bugs. The researchers also are collecting additional cardiac data from the dogs in an effort to better determine whether the abnormalities detected pose an immediate risk.

"This silent killer, Chagas, has posed a real risk to humans in certain parts of the country," said ASTMH President Regina Rabinovich, MD. "Ongoing support for research to track where this disease is and how it got there is crucial, as is enhanced education and training for those in the health sector to better recognize this disease."

[For more on this topic, see "Research finds high rate of Texas bugs carrying Chagas disease" ( news/2015-09-high-texas-bugs- chagas-disease.html ) and "High rate of Texas bugs carrying Chagas disease" ( releases/2015/09/150909132742. htm ).]

Communicated by:
ProMED-mail Rapporteur Kunihiko Iizuka

[Sadly, Chaga's disease is not new, nor is the research. The research, however, has been advancing.

The disease is really horrible in dogs, but it also affects people. If there are affected dogs in the area, it is reasonable to assume human beings are too, at least those involved in some activities, such as tent camping or sleeping outside unprotected, which may increase the risk of a bite from a kissing bug. - Mod.TG

HealthMap/ProMED-mail map:
United States: 106 ]

See Also

Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Brazil (02): (PA) foodborne
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - USA (02): (KS) animal, RFI
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Mexico: (YU) 20180516.5798553
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - USA: ex El Salvador, central nervous system 20180513.5794324
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Venezuela: (TA) 20180410.5737584
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Brazil: (AM) 20180113.5557665
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Canada: congenital 20171217.5509223
Trypanosomiasis, canine - Uruguay (02): comment 20171209.5493198
Trypanosomiasis, canine - Uruguay 20171202.5478928
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Chile: increase, northern Chile coast 20171013.5379199
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Brazil: under reported 20170520.5050477
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Brazil: (PA) oral transmission susp. 20161124.4651500
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - USA: (TX) equine, 1st rep. 20160718.4352705
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) & leishmaniasis - Colombia 20150906.3628045
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Peru: guinea pig reservoir 20150702.3475095
Trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease) - Venezuela: fatal, oral transmission susp. 20150701.3475040
Trypanosomiasis, canines - USA: (TX) 20140511.2465156