Pan­demic may spare us from the bed­bug plague

Merced Sun-Star - - Community - BY JANE E. BRODY

This year’s plague, the newly emerged coro­n­avirus, is likely to spare many peo­ple from be­ing at­tacked by an an­cient scourge: bed­bugs. Given the dras­tic pan­demic-in­duced re­duc­tions in travel and nights spent in ho­tels, mo­tels and other venues out­side one’s home, the chances of be­ing bit­ten by or bring­ing home these un­in­vited guests have been greatly cur­tailed.

But that’s not a li­cense to be­come com­pla­cent about a pesky in­sect that has been around for at least four mil­len­ni­ums, de­fied erad­i­ca­tion for more than a cen­tury and, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, can be ex­tremely chal­leng­ing to avoid.

Last year, in a sur­vey of 50 U.S. ci­ties by the Orkin ex­ter­mi­na­tion com­pany, the na­tion’s cap­i­tal proved to be the most heav­ily in­fested, fol­lowed by Bal­ti­more, Chicago and Los Angeles. Orkin ranked

New York sixth, af­ter Colum­bus, Ohio, al­though Ter­minex gave New York a du­bi­ous top billing among 15 U.S. ci­ties. In just five years, from 2004 to 2009, an­nual com­plaints about bed­bugs to New York’s

City Coun­cil rose to 10,985 from 537, prompt­ing re­stric­tions on how to dis­card mat­tresses.

World­wide, pro­fes­sional pest man­agers have re­ported, the num­ber of bed­bug in­fes­ta­tions in­creased by more than 4,500% in the early years of this cen­tury. The in­sects have be­come es­pe­cially prob­lem­atic in the United States, where an es­ti­mated 1 in 5 Amer­i­cans has ei­ther been plagued by bed­bugs per­son­ally or knows some­one who has been, of­ten at great ex­pense.

A friend, whose suit­case be­came a bed­bug vec­tor ap­par­ently dur­ing stor­age in the lug­gage room of a high-end ho­tel in up­state New York, found one crawl­ing on her when she donned night­clothes and sat down to read shortly af­ter ar­riv­ing home in Brook­lyn. She spent $1,300 to get the house fu­mi­gated, and now rou­tinely quar­an­tines her lug­gage and its con­tents out in the freez­ing cold af­ter a trip to min­i­mize the risk of a re­peat in­va­sion.

What my friend didn’t know, how­ever, is that bed­bugs can live for many months with­out feed­ing on hu­man blood, so wait­ing even weeks to un­pack may not help. Brook­lyn back­yards and even home freez­ers may not be cold enough to kill them: Ex­perts rec­om­mend minus 4 de­grees Fahren­heit.

As an Orkin en­to­mol­o­gist, Chelle Hartzer, warned about bed­bugs, “They are ex­cel­lent hitch­hik­ers and they re­pro­duce quickly, which make it nearly im­pos­si­ble to pre­vent bed­bugs.” In­creases in both do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional travel in re­cent decades con­trib­uted greatly to their cur­rent ubiq­uity. Com­pli­cat­ing con­trol ef­forts, they have be­come re­sis­tant to most com­monly used in­sec­ti­cides, in­clud­ing pyrethroid­s.

No one, not the most fas­tid­i­ous among us, is im­mune to a bed­bug in­fes­ta­tion. They can be found just about any place where peo­ple sit or sleep – cine­mas, of­fices, schools, churches, hos­pi­tals, buses, trains, cruise ships and air­planes, as well as in ho­tels and homes. Ac­cord­ing to a lengthy re­port by Aus­tralian sci­en­tists in Clin­i­cal Mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy Re­views, an en­tire build­ing’s in­fes­ta­tion can start with only a few bed­bugs or, pos­si­bly, even a sin­gle fe­male.

One im­preg­nated fe­male can lay two to five eggs a day.

And the bugs can be dev­il­ishly dif­fi­cult to de­tect. The eggs of this flight­less in­sect are pearly white and the size of a pin­head; adults are brown or red­dish brown (if they had a re­cent blood meal) and the size of an ap­ple seed, about a quar­ter-inch long. Two French doc­tors, writ­ing in The New Eng­land Jour­nal of Medicine in June, re­ported that “between blood meals, bed­bugs hide in dark places, such as house­hold cracks and crevices, walls, lug­gage, bed­clothes, mat­tresses, bed­springs, bed frames, spa­ces un­der base­boards, loose or peel­ing wall­pa­per, elec­tri­cal switch plates and con­duits for elec­tri­cal ca­bles.”

Al­though they can bite pain­lessly at any time of the day, most of­ten they come out of hid­ing at night to feast on the blood of their sleep­ing hu­man hosts, some­times leav­ing a tell­tale trail of blood on bed­sheets. The bugs nei­ther hop nor jump, but they can crawl fast – sev­eral feet in un­der a minute – for such a tiny crea­ture.

Bed­bugs rarely trans­mit dis­ease, al­though ex­ces­sively scratch­ing their itchy bites can re­sult in sec­ondary in­fec­tions. (On the pos­i­tive side, the Aus­tralian au­thors wrote, their scent glands se­crete a sub­stance that in­hibits mi­cro­bial growth and that may one day be­come phar­ma­co­log­i­cally use­ful.)

Along with a mad­den­ing itch, know­ing that bed­bugs are in one’s home can drive a per­son crazy. The French sci­en­tists re­ported that “sleep de­pri­va­tion, in­som­nia or sleep­less­ness are com­monly as­so­ci­ated with in­fes­ta­tion.” The psy­cho­log­i­cal toll can be ex­treme, re­sult­ing in night­mares, anx­i­ety and an in­abil­ity to func­tion, they added.

“Peo­ple in­fested with bed­bugs may be­come so­cially iso­lated,” the Aus­tralians wrote. “With some in­di­vid­u­als, even when the prob­lem is solved, the psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma can de­velop into a delu­sion­ary state, whereby the pa­tients feel bites and in­sects crawl­ing on them even if the bed­bugs have been elim­i­nated.”


Pesky bed­bugs have been around for at least four mil­len­ni­ums, de­fied erad­i­ca­tion for more than a cen­tury and, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, can be ex­tremely chal­leng­ing to avoid.

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