SALT LAKE CITY — There's nothing better than an anecdotal horror story about a creepy-crawly to keep us squirming in our beds at night, wondering what might be afoot in the dark.
And recent reports of the so-called "kissing bug" — which infects those it bites when its fecal matter is spread across the wound — making its way through the U.S. have likely entered the nightmares of many.
But should the Beehive State be concerned?
According to the Utah Department of Health, maybe. But other critters pose more of an immediate threat.
"I don't think it's a huge risk here in the state. But obviously we're keeping up our surveillance and we'll let everyone know if we do find it to be a risk," said Dallin Peterson, Utah Department of Health epidemiologist.
The symptoms of Chagas' disease
The bugs, of which there are several species, spread the serious Chagas' disease, which can cause heart problems including heart failure. They have a penchant for biting the faces of victims, which gives them their name.
Doctors diagnose the disease through blood testing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An infected person can be symptom-free or can experience mild symptoms including fever, fatigue, body aches, vomiting and rashes.
In summer 2018, a little girl who lived in a heavily-wooded area in Delaware was bitten by the bug while watching TV. Her parents were concerned and contacted health officials. Luckily, she did not get the illness, the CDC said.
A study out of California in the 1960s found that the kissing bug does reside in Utah. In 2018, the state made Chagas' disease reportable — meaning doctors must report cases of it to the state health department — so officials can keep track of whether it is causing human infections, Peterson said. Utah is one of only a few states that have that rule.'
Last year, Utah saw 10 reports of the disease, according to Peterson, but those with Chagas' had picked it up in other areas. None of the cases were fatal. Most human cases occur in Latin and South American countries. State health officials know of no human infections contracted from a kissing bug in Utah, Peterson said.
Most of the cases were identified when people visited cardiologists. You can't donate or receive an organ if you have Chagas', Peterson said, so doctors need to rule the disease out in those who want to donate or receive a new organ.
Animals risk getting infected, too
Humans aren't the only ones to beware the kissing bugs' pucker. They can also infect animals.
"Usually they're hiding in burrows or around where domestic animals are at … in one issue that they found specifically in Colorado, they're infecting the wood rat, and that wood rat population is keeping the kissing bugs thriving and keeping Chagas' disease in the kissing bug population," Peterson explained.
"That's one thing, if you do have an animal, and it's an outside animal like a dog or cat, make sure it's not infected."
Veterinarians offer tests for Chagas', he said.
The subspecies of kissing bugs in Utah is called triatomine protracta navajoensis. One hypothesis explaining why they haven't infected people in the state is because that subspecies is "a little slower to defecate" after biting someone, Peterson said.
He believes the more we look for the bug, the more we'll find it. In the past couple years, it's resided predominantly in southern counties, including Grand, San Juan, Emery, and east into the Uintahs and Duchesne, cutting across three-quarters of the state, Peterson said.
The heath department is "always keeping surveillance up" to see if they're infecting people in Utah. If a kissing bug passes the disease on to a person, Peterson said, health officials will investigate and notify the public.
To stay clear of kissing bugs for your and your animals' sake, make sure the area around your home is clean, Peterson said.
"They usually come out at night," he said, explaining that people usually don't know their house serves as a home for the insects. But if you spot their nest or their fecal matter, contact a pest control agency, Peterson said.
It's also always a good idea to seal your house to try to prevent bugs from coming inside.
Stay clear of ticks, mosquitoes and bees
Insects that we should be more cautious of in spring are ticks and mosquitoes, according to the epidemiologist. He said lot of people in Utah have already been bitten by ticks this year, and mosquito season will begin soon.
"Ticks are definitely out in abundance right now; they're trying to find a good source. So if you're up hiking or anything, make sure you check yourself for ticks," Peterson explained.
The CDC suggests treating clothes and gear with permethrin and using repellents containing DEET. When returning home, do a full body and clothing check for ticks — and take a shower, according to the CDC.
When it comes to mosquitoes, make sure there's no standing water around your home for them to live in. With all the rain the state has had, Peterson thinks it might be a "big season" for them this year.
Other insects of concern include invasive species that are bugging the Utah Department of Agriculture.
State entomologist Kristopher Watson says he and his department are monitoring Africanized — or "killer" — honeybees, which can be more aggressive than the bees we're used to. They've migrated into San Juan, Kane, Garfield, Wayne, Grand, Emery and Washington counties, with other counties at risk.6 comments on this story
"When we find that they do have African genetics, then we will alert the county and alert the first responders of that county so that they know if they go into a situation where they get a phone call about a bee-related incident, that they can protect themselves so that they don't become part of the situation. That they can help out with the situation," Watson said.
If you come into contact with bees that might be Africanized, Watson said, "just stay clear and give them the respect that all bees should be given to make sure that there's no aggression and aggravation of the colony to promote them to attack."