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My research focuses on the eco-epidemiology of Chagas disease,
caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, and
transmitted through the feces of insects known as kissing
bugs. I study where kissing bugs occur, how frequently they
are carrying the parasite, and which strain-types of the parasite
occurs in different locations. Though Chagas disease is
increasingly being studied in the US. The best training
facilities for studying this disease system are found in South
America. I was fortunate enough to find a well-established
training program in Ecuador that is run by Dr. Mario Grijalva of
For part of the training, I was a part of the mammalogy team
that was live-trapping squirrels, opossums, and other medium-sized
arboreal mammals. We were setting traps along a line transect
in the forest. Every 50 meters, we marked a point as the
central location and placed 4 traps somewhere around that
point. Tricky part was that the traps had to be up in the
trees, lashed to branches. Even trickier was that, to get to
any tree, you had to scramble up at least 10 feet of an almost
vertical incline. And because we needed to find braches
sturdy enough to hold not only a cage, but potentially an angry
squirrel, sometimes we climbed up the dirt wall as far as 100 or
150 feet. Once arriving to an appropriately sized tree, you
check to make sure that the tree is in fact alive (climbing a dead
tree on the side of a slope with potential for a 100 foot fall is
not such a bright idea, so we like to make sure they are alive
enough to support us!).
Then, climb the tree until you reach an adequate branch.
While precariously straddling the branch, you then reach to place
the trap (without it closing on your fingers) and tie it tightly so
that it will not fall, even with an escape-artist squirrel in
it. Repeat this process 100 times, and this is the effort we
put in today. With about 10 of us working together, it still
took about 8 hours.
Luckily, this is a type of forest known as tropical dry
forest. Dry forests generally have many less creepy crawly,
bitey-stingy things that the tropical wet or rain forests.
Although…we did run into (literally) many spider webs along the
way. I believe these are a type of golden orb-weavers, and
they have incredibly strong silk.
Other than the spiders, I didn't see any snakes or nasty spiny
little caterpillars. There are not many plants with spines or
urticating hairs. The only other life I saw were a few small
lizards (anoles) and lots of insects (mostly flies, wasps,
Here the kissing bugs are called chinchurros. The
entomology team has the duty of travelling to a few different
communities over the course several weeks. Each day, they
load up a few pick-up trucks and a ranchera with 20-30
people. The band of chinchurro hunters then spends 1-2 hours
riding along dusty, bumpy roads to reach rural communities.
From the main-base of a local small school (think about 10-20
students small), teams spread out to educate, inspect, and
eliminate. Each team consists of 2 students and 2 SNEM
men. The SNEM men are employees of the Ministry of Health who
usually work in the Servicio Nacional de Eliminación de Malaria
(National Malaria Eradication Service), but that join Dr.
Grijalva's team each summer to also work on Chagas disease vector
control. Teams travel to houses that are scattered
across the landscape, connected by winding footpaths and
occasionally, by dirt roads. The houses are not anywhere near
up to the standards that you would expect to find in US, with only
basic electricity and plumbing in most cases. There is no
air-conditioning, no nicely tiled floors and painted walls, no
lavish furnishings, rarely a radio, let-alone a television.
These are some of the poorest-of-the-poor, and they invite us in
with the warmth and kindness of close friends and offer us fruit
from their trees. They listen attentively as the SNEM men
explain what we are looking for and why the chinchurro is dangerous
to have in your house. They tell us that they see the
chinchurros in their houses, in their beds, on the walls.
They are interested in learning more, and the SNEM men have
answers. After an introduction, the team conducts a thorough
inspection of the house. With flashlights in hand, we scour
the cracks in the mud walls, the ceilings, and the dirt floors for
the bugs. Outside, we search the walls, chicken nests, and
eves of the house. When a chinchurro is discovered, it is
captured and placed in a small container. The container is
carefully labeled and stored to be taken back to the lab for
analysis of the bug. Teams visit the same houses for three
consecutive days of searching. On the third day after
the last search, we carry all the belongings out of the house and
the SNEM men suit-up in their gas masks and backpack-style
pesticide applicators. They spray the house from top to
bottom, inside and out, and we wait outside with the family until
it is safe to replace their possessions. Each team visits
from 2-5 houses a day, depending upon how far the houses are.
It's a good hike to some of the houses, and the sun is
unrelenting. Meeting the families, watching the diligence of
the SNEM men, and seeing the mountains on all sides made this a
Since the main "base camp" is about 1 hour of bumpy dirt roads
from the city, we eat breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria building
of the local school. There are only 28 children in the
school, and the community if very poor, so it is probably unlike
any school cafeteria you can imagine: a roof, a few tables and
chairs, a large stove, and a sink that doesn't work. Kitchen
duty rotates from participant to participant, and we each spend one
day helping Pato, the cook, with the daily duties.
So, it was a 4am wakeup today, with a 4:30 departure to the
community. Between Pato, two local women, and I, we prepared
fried pork, mashed potatoes, and scrambled eggs for
breakfast. Then I washed dishes, a lot of dishes. Which
wasn't so bad, because it was washing outside under the sun, and I
could watch the goings-on of the community and the other
participants going about their duties. Part of the challenge
was that the kitchen needed the water as much as the builders
needed the water to mix cement and wet the bricks. So, we
took turns alternating the limited water supply between running to
the dish-washing area and the building area.
Just as I finished washing the dished from breakfast, it was
time to start cooking lunch. It was a lot of cooking, but it
was nice to be in the position to see all the participants come in
throughout the day and appreciate that there was food on the table
to replenish their energy. Since I come from a large (and
hungry) family, it was a bit like being at home!
My main reason for attending this training course was to learn
the procedures for processing kissing bugs and mammals. They
have established techniques that I would like to use in our Chagas
research at A&M, and so I came to learn the processes.
There was a laboratory in the field and a laboratory in Quito.
In the field, there was a makeshift BSL2-equipped lab, with all
the precautions and equipment necessary to dissect bugs and start
parasite cultures. Bugs were carefully dissected, with
antenna, legs, wings, and bodies all placed in individual,
carefully-labeled tubes for transport back to Quito. A
hindgut sample from each bug was taken for parasite culture, and we
looked through the microscope to see if the bug was infected with
the parasite. In many cases, I peered through the microscope
to see many wriggling trypanosomes on the slide. Samples were
placed in culture tubes so that the parasite could be further
studied in the future.
In Quito, the laboratory facilities are located at the Center
for Infectious Disease Research at Catholic University.
Parasite cultures are checked and transferred after returning from
the field. There is another check for parasites using the
microscope, and positives are noted. Also in the Center is
the vivarium, where kissing bug colonies are kept for studying the
life cycle, feeding requirements, and general habits of the kissing
bugs. All these studies are adding to the knowledge of
kissing bug behaviors that may increase the transmission of the
parasite to humans and other mammals. I spent two weeks in
the lab in Quito, and I was able to have a wide variety of
experiences that have already influenced how I am conducting
procedures in our lab at Texas A&M.
One weekend, I and some other participants and staff took a
day-trip to Otavalo, a city with a well-known artesian
market. There were many stalls filled with crafts and
clothing to meander through. It was a great place to pick up
gifts for those at home, and although I'm too much of a push-over
to be able to even think about bargaining, everything was priced
low enough that it was an efficient place to buy everything in one
stop for low prices. On the way back from Otavalo, we also
stopped in Cotacachi, a city well-known for well-made leather
goods. Blocks and blocks of stores were filled with shoes,
boots, coats, jackets, purses, wallets, and just about anything
else you could ever imagine being made of leather.
My final day was my opportunity to visit the equator. I
was taken by one of the Ecuadorian researchers to the small
equator-town that boasts a large monument and a yellow line that
runs along where the equator is said to be. We also stopped
at a nearby location that claims to have the actual "GIS-certified"
equator. Regardless of which one you visit, there is a lot to
be seen. We ate traditional Ecuadorian snacks and spent the
day chatting about research, Chagas disease, and culture. It
was an excellent ending to a wonderful trip.
Though there are so many more stories to tell and experiences to
share, I can't fit them all here. I can only recommend that
you go and find out!
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