Experts doubt it was a kissing bug that delivered the fatal bite to Evelyn Wooten while she walked with a friend on the Riverwalk Trail in downtown Danville more than two weeks ago.
“It is highly unlikely, but not impossible,” said John Styrsky, professor of biology at the University of Lynchburg.
What happened to Wooten would not be normal in situations involving a kissing bug, Styrsky said.
“They typically do not just fly from wherever they are and just land on somebody and bite them,” he said.
Wooten’s friend, Karen Hudgins, said last week she believed she knows what caused Wooten’s fatal allergic reaction — triatoma sanguisuga, also known as the kissing bug.
It’s a dark colored insect, usually black or brown, and has six legs, antenna and a back shaped sort of like half a peanut shell with a back end wider than its front.
After being told of experts’ doubts about the likelihood of Wooten being bitten by a kissing bug, Hudgins said she still thinks the insect she saw online was what bit her friend.
“I really do,” added Hudgins, who said what bit Wooten looked like a horsefly at first.
But according to Virginia Tech Vector Ecologist Sally Paulson, that’s likely what it was — a horsefly. She agreed with Styrsky that a kissing bug would not fly up to someone and start feeding.
“The behavior sounds much more like a horsefly or deer fly and there have been reported cases of anaphylaxis from horsefly bites,” Paulson said.
It was while walking on the trail July 2 that Wooten noted a bug was on her and asked Hudgins to swat it away. Hudgins slapped what she thought was a horsefly off her friends’ shoulder area.
About 10 minutes later, as they were heading toward the Crossing at the Dan, Wooten began to have trouble breathing. Moments later she began to swell up and turn blue all over and collapsed. Her last words were “911.”
A fatal allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a kissing bug is possible, but the chances are very rare, according to Styrsky.
“It’s far more common for people to be allergic to bee stings and ant bites than to a kissing bug,” Styrsky said.
Wooten’s son, Mark Wooten, said: “I believe she got bit by something. I wasn’t there, her friend was.”
The hospital only confirmed to Wooten that his mother was bitten by something that caused a severe allergic reaction.
“I can only go by what the doctors told me,” he said, adding he trusts Hudgins “100%.”
As for the opinions of experts who talked to the Register & Bee, “everyone’s got a right to their own opinion,” Wooten added.
Kissing bugs are found in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and South America, according to the Atlanta, Georgia-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eleven different species have been found in the southern U.S.
The bug’s saliva can cause an allergic reaction that can include severe redness, itching, swelling, welts, hives, or, in rare cases, anaphylactic shock, according to the CDC website.
It also can spread the sometimes deadly Chagas disease by releasing the pathogen in its feces near the site of the bite. Humans can be infected by scratching the bite and rubbing the pathogen into the wound, mouth, nose or eyes, according to the Virginia Department of Health website.
The type of kissing bug found in Virginia is the Eastern cone-nose, said Eric Day, entomologist with the Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech. About five are submitted to the lab per year, Day said.
“Five a year is pretty uncommon,” Day said. “I wouldn’t consider it a common insect.”
Styrsky receives about 50 inquiries per year about insects people suspect are kissing bugs. About five turn out to be actual kissing bugs.
“It’s rarely actually a kissing bug,” he said, adding it’s easy to misidentify insects.
Symptoms of Chagas disease include fever; swelling around the bite; and in acute cases, severe inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain.
Complications from chronic Chagas disease include heart rhythm abnormalities that can cause sudden death; a dilated heart that doesn’t pump blood well; and a dilated esophagus or colon, leading to difficulties with eating or bowel movements, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Symptoms can show up within a few days after infection and can last a few weeks or months.
The Eastern cone-nose variety found in Virginia is not known to spread Chagas disease to humans, Day said. The only reported cases of the disease in Virginia have been found in people who traveled to Central America or South America, he said.
Kissing bugs can live indoors, in cracks and holes in substandard housing, or in a variety of outdoor settings, according to the CDC.
Common places for them include underneath porches; between rocky structures; under cement; in rock, wood, brush piles, or beneath bark; in rodent nests or animal burrows; in outdoor dog houses or kennels, and in chicken coops or houses.
As for the Riverwalk Trail, Danville Parks and Recreation Director Bill Sgrinia said his department is not doing anything differently since Wooten’s death.
“We don’t have the capacity to go out and start spraying 11 miles of trail,” Sgrinia said. “We don’t have anything we can do for this particular incident. This appears to be a very isolated incident and we urge people to continue to use the trail and use caution you would use anytime you’re in the heat or out in nature.”
Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.