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‘The Kissing Bug’: Daisy Hernández’s Riveting Investigation of a Rare Infectious Disease, Racial Politics and For-Profit Healthcare

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Daisy Hernandez

Daisy Hernández grew up knowing her Tía Dora was always thin and sickly. She never quite knew what was wrong, but the issues defined Dora’s life. As an adult, Hernández gives a name to the problem: Chagas. As a journalist, she embarks on a journey that takes her all over the country to interview patients, epidemiologists, and even veterinarians with the Department of Defense. The journey has been long and arduous. It’s also been revealing about the ways in which racial politics and for-profit healthcare have contributed to the problem of Chagas, the kissing bug disease that ravages the human body and destroys families.

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Highlights from the interview

The author on her earliest awareness of Chagas, the "kissing bug" disease
My earliest awareness was really...being in the hospital, visiting my auntie. This was at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, what it was called back then in New York City. Well, at that age, of course I was only five or six. So I actually didn't quite grasp that there was an adult who was sick. I simply accepted things as being so normal. And so I accepted that my auntie was in this hospital, as she would spend weeks at a time in this hospital. And over the years as I grew up, she was in and out of hospitals and it wasn't until I was around 12 that another family member began to explain a little bit about the illness, but it really took many years. And it sort of coincided with my growing up to understand that she had this parasitic disease.

On deciding to research the disease
When I started to read about it, it became such a shock to find out that it was not a rare disease, but rather a neglected one. And that was such a shock to me to learn that the World Health Organization has an entire list of diseases that are neglected. That's what they have in common is that they're neglected, but they're very pervasive. And of course they're outside of the United States and outside of Western Europe. And they affect more than a billion people. It came as such a shock and I wanted at that point, I wanted to learn more and I also ended up having a lot of questions around whether there were other families like my own, who were struggling with Chagas disease or the "kissing bug" disease.

On researching the disease in dogs in Texas
I ended up actually in Texas because there is phenomenal work that's being done on the kissing blood disease by a veterinarian at Texas A&M in College Station...They had actually identified that the kissing bug disease is pretty prevalent in dogs across the state. And so we knew before she started doing this work, what the experts knew was that you could definitely find it in dogs in South Texas, but she went and looked at dogs across the entire state. And as I don't have to tell all of your listeners, but there's a lot of different environmental regions, ecoregions within the state. It's so, so expansive. And so the fact that these insects are throughout the state, that dogs are having contact with them. Either the bugs are biting them, or they're eating the bugs.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.