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Chagas disease, a.k.a. American trypanosomiasis, is a potentially serious tropical disease affecting millions of people across Mexico, Central, and South America. Estimated to cause over 12,000 deaths a year, the disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi and spread primarily by biting insects that are known not-so-fondly as "kissing bugs." Belonging to the Triatominae subfamily of insects, most species of kissing bugs (also referred to as assassin or vampire bugs) get their name by sucking on the blood of sleeping mammals and, after biting them, defecating on their victims. Though Chagas disease was only formally identified in 1909, the potential role of kissing bugs in spreading disease that can damage the heart, nervous system, and other parts of the body has been recognized for centuries giving them an unsavory reputation across most tropical regions.
While kissing bugs can also be found in the southern United States, actual incidents of disease remain almost unknown except among recent arrivals from countries where exposure is more common. In fact, most species of Triatomine found in the United States don't carry the Trypanosoma parasite and rarely attack humans the way their southern counterparts do. Not that this prevented a bizarre panic surrounding kissing bugs that broke out in 1899 across the U.S.
The apparent cause of the panic was a story written by Washington Post crime reporter James F. McElhone in the summer of 1899. After discovering that an unusually high number of patients had been admitted to the Washington City Emergency Hospital for insect bites, McElhone wrote an article describing the bug-bite victims as being "badly poisoned" and concluded that they were part of a new epidemic. Since none of the victims could recall being bitten, McElhone concluded that they had been bitten by kissing bugs as they slept. He then went on to state:
"Look out for the new bug. It is an insidious insect that bites without causing pain and escapes unnoticed. But afterward, the place where it has bitten swells to ten times its normal size. The Emergency Hospital has had several victims of this insect as patients lately and the number is increasing."
One of the victims named in McElhone's article was a newspaper agent named William Smith who had an "upper lip swollen to many times its natural size. The symptoms are in every case the same, and there is indication of poisoning from an insect's bite." Other newspapers quickly spread the story and the panic was on.
Within days of the original Washington Post story, newspapers in other cities were warning that the kissing bug epidemic was spreading from Washington, D.C. to other parts of the country. One enterprising reporter identified the specific culprit as melanolestes picipes, a.k.a. the Black corsair. The reporter then went on to describe this particular "varmint" as a little black bug prone to attacking humans as they slept. Quoting an unnamed entomologist at the Department of Agriculture, he wrote that the bug "attacks the upper lip and its sting is painless at the time it is inflicted. Within a few hours afterward however, the lip swells to a frightful extent becoming a dark scarlet in color. Intense pain accompanies the swelling and continues for twenty-four hours."
In reality, while belonging to the Triatominae subfamily, these particular kissing bugs were mainly found in woodland areas and rarely attacked humans unless their territory was disturbed. But, sure enough, panicked reports about kissing bug attacks soon came in from all parts of the country. Just days after the first story was run, a new story titled "Kissing Bug at Work" described the agonies experienced by three victims after being bitten. One of them, an actress, was described as being bitten on the forehead and that her doctor would be operating on her if the swelling failed to go down.
Since actual descriptions of the dread kissing bug were vague at best, virtually anyone reporting an insect sting, including from familiar culprits such as bees and wasps, joined the kissing bug hysteria bandwagon. In one town where kissing bug attacks had occurred, it was reported that "every residence in the town is closed airtight" to avoid being bitten.
But the hysteria hit a fever pitch in mid-July when a 33-year-old Chicago native named Mary Steger died of unknown causes. After determining that Mrs. Steger had been bitten by a mysterious bug six days previously, her doctor, George M. Illingsworth issued a unique death certificate that stated "Chief and determining cause of death, sting of kissing bug. Consecutive and contributary cause: tonsilitis." Almost immediately, local medical experts began questioning Illingsworth's diagnosis but, when the coroner tried to conduct an autopsy on Mary Steger's body, he soon discovered that she had already been embalmed. As a result, there was no way to establish true cause of death.
Not that this stopped newspapers across the country from printing stories with headlines such as "Cause of Death a Kissing Bug." Before long, new cases of mysterious deaths were also attributed to the kissing bug, even when there was no real evidence that a bug bite had occurred. The most dramatic declaration made about the kissing bug epidemic sweeping the country came from a Chicago preacher, A. M. Leonard. Based on his unique interpretation of the Book of Revelation, "Professor" Leonard concluded that the kissing bug was a sign that the world was about to end. As his proof, he cited Revelation 9:3-4 "And out of the smoke, locusts descended upon the earth, and they were given power like unto the scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads." Basically, he concluded that all of the people bitten so far were non-believers who had been targeted by God.
Fortunately, the craze soon subsided as scientists spoke to the press to set the facts straight about melanolestes picipes. Leland Howard, then-chief entomologist of the Department of Agriculture wrote an influential article in Popular Science Monthly in which he referred to the kissing bug phenomenon as a "newspaper epidemic, for every insect bite where the biter was not at once recognized was attributed to the popular and somewhat mysterious creature.” Of all the countless specimens of alleged kissing bugs sent in to various scientific organizations for identification, virtually all of them were common insects such as houseflies, beetles, bees, etc. One person even sent in a butterfly.
At the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Columbus, Ohio that summer, Professor John B. Smith issued an interesting challenge: "If anyone would bring me a live kissing bug I will let it sting to its heart's content. We are simply going through a craze like the one we had when spider bites were popular. Everybody who was bitten by any kind of an insect was bitten by a spider. The same is true now.” While stories about kissing bug attacks slowly petered out over the next few months, the legend of the deadly bug lived on. Though there were still reports kissing bug attacks over the next few years, most newspapers tended to run them more for amusement value rather than the deadly earnestness at the height of the 1899 epidemic. Other health panics would come along soon enough and the deadly kissing bug was largely forgotten.
So spare a thought for the lowly melanolestes picipes the next time you hear about a new health scare. More often than not, there is no reason to get bugged about it.
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