Science Cafe

Nipping the kissing bug in the bud

Elizabeth Cychosz,

Professor Mario Grijalva explains to the audience how Chagas disease infects the body.

At this week’s Science Café, Professor Mario Grijalva invited café-goers to rural Ecuador, where he has been putting his medical and community-building skills to work for more than a decade.

Grijalva, the director of the Tropical Disease Institute of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Ohio University, took a trip to a rural Ecuadorian village to study Chagas disease, a fatal illness caused by the bite of a reduviid bug (which looks a bit like a cockroach).

The bug lives in the dark crevices  – such as cracks in the walls, behind furniture, even in bedding – of the adobe houses in the area and feeds on anything living, typically while its victim is sleeping. For the residents of this village, this often means that they will wake up with a bite on their face, the only skin not covered by blankets. This has led to Chagas’s pseudonym as the “kissing disease.” On average, Grijalva said, 30 to 40 percent of those who have been bitten will develop some form of the chronic disease.

Chagas is known as a hidden killer, Grijalva said, because it can be up to 20 years between contraction and what is often sudden death. During this time, apart from a few initial symptoms, the victim typically does not know they have the disease. Because of this, awareness of Chagas in the area was very low at the time of his visit, Grijalva said.

Grijalva said that he saw that the prevalence of Chagas and other municipal struggles such as lack of water and bad roads as getting in the way of the community’s potential. The people were happy, despite what typical portrayals of poverty say, but their quality of life could be improved. He wanted to help. “I couldn’t just come back and write an academic paper,” Grijalva said.

Unless it is caught early, there is currently no way to cure Chagas disease. Grijalva said he knew that the way to lower the prevalence of the disease would be to break the cycle and get rid of the bugs. Although going through individual houses to remove bugs and spray insecticide works for a while, he learned that the bugs always came back.

Rather than removal and spray, Grijalva said he intends to work with community members to build new, bug-proof homes. “How can we expect them not to come back if the restaurant is still open?” he asked. “It’s a big sign saying ‘Free Blood! Come Here!’”

The blueprints were recently finished for this bug-free, culturally appropriate home, and the pilot house will be built this summer. This project will be funded by grants from both a university in Ecuador and the Ohio University’s 1804 Fund. Grijalva hopes to replace the current adobe homes in three of the worst-afflicted villages to see if this would be a large-scale solution.

He and his team – some of whom are OU students studying abroad with the Tropical Disease Research Program – have studied the reduviid bugs to monitor where they are coming from and what types of reduviids are found most often in different places. This way, Grijalva said, he can track and compare the disease region by region, village by village, or house by house.

In addition to overt disease prevention, Grijalva and his team have been working on community development with community members throughout the region. He said he conducted a broad study to determine what those in the area saw as the worst problems in their lives. The final list ranked, in order, water, roads, better houses and then safety.

Since then, Grijalva said he has been working with the Ecuadorians to help them realize, design and fund development projects. In the past, these have included drinking wells, a local pharmacy, craft workshops and a fence around the school’s recess yard.  Grijalva said he wants to empower the people and help them foster the relationships necessary to be self-reliant and self-developing. Although he and his team of international students and researchers haven’t given these projects as gifts, they are providing manpower and insight, he said.

Throughout the course of his many trips to Ecuador, Grijalva has promoted awareness of Chagas disease and has already seen his work have an effect. Because more people are aware of the disease and now recognize the bites, he said, early detection and therefore treatment is more common than before.


2 thoughts on “Nipping the kissing bug in the bud

  1. Pingback: Nipping the kissing bug in the bud | Elizabeth Cychosz

  2. A fascinating story of science, study abroad, and the power of community to change their world for the better. This is the kind of thing that makes Science Cafe so cool – thanks for sharing!


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