The battle of the bedbugs

They smell of almonds and suck your blood while you sleep: bedbugs are making a comeback

Bedbug infestations have become such a serious problem in the US that the government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a summit earlier this year on the subject in Washington.

Dermatologist Gil Yosipovitch, M.D., of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has confirmed what we all already suspected: the existence of the “contagious itch”. That’s the need to itch and scratch if we see someone else doing it.

Yosipovitch set out to systematically investigate contagious itch because the exact mechanism underlying this type of “itch transmission” is not well understood, and nor is what happens in the brain during this transmission.

”It is conceivable that the neuronal networks or mechanisms underlying contagious itching may be similar to the ones involved in contagious yawning, a phenomenon that is still intensely studied, but not exactly clear,” Yosipovitch said. “The brain has such a powerful contribution to itch and by understanding it, we may be able to develop future therapies that can target these areas and relieve the itch impulse.”

The new findings appear online in The British Journal of Dermatology. The study was supported by a grant from the National Eczema Association.

Yosipovitch’s team of scientists compared 14 healthy subjects, who received histamine or a saline control applied to their forearm, with 11 patients who had atopic dermatitis (AD). All study participants were monitored as they watched short video clips of people scratching or in a relaxed state, and their behavior analyzed.

Researchers found those with AD had a higher itch intensity and scratched more frequently while watching the videos of other subjects scratching. Of interest, said Yosipovitch, is that the visually-induced itch had a scattered, wide body distribution of scratching.

Yosipovitch’s next step will be to conduct MRI scans to study participants’ brain mechanisms while inducing itch. They hope it will help them to develop techniques like relaxation and meditation or medications that could target specific brain areas to reduce the severity of itch expression.

In view of the growing epidemic, all businesses should review their property and liability insurances and also think about how they would respond to bedbug related problems to do with staff or clients.

The National Bedbug Summit saw 300 representatives, from lawmakers to academics, meet to discuss the threat posed to health by the spread of bedbugs in the US.

There are no nationally-collated figures on the numbers of bedbug infestations in the US, but officials from the EPA say cases are on the rise, and that bedbugs are spreading throughout the country.

Bill Diamond, from the EPA told the summit that while cases are still mainly confined to cities on the East Coast, there are now reports of infestations in every state in America.

Coming to a town near you soon?

One problem, Mr Diamond says, is that the bugs are becoming increasingly resistant to the pesticides used to control them. “There are many different strains of bugs not only in this country but around the world and that’s one of the problems we are having,” he added.

In US cities their resurgence has created havoc in the residential lettings sector because landlords are terrified of new tenants bringing the critters in - and new tenants fear moving into a new, potentially infested building.

In New York last year, according to the BBC, locations including the flagship Nike store, a branch of lingerie chain Victoria’s Secret and even the BBC’s own studios at the United Nations were forced to deal with infestations.

Pest control companies, who use sniffer dogs to certify tenants and/or premises as “clean” are having a field day.

Cities elsewhere in the world could soon be having similar problems, according to pest control experts. Recent data from Rentokil showed a 24% increase in bedbug jobs in the UK over the period January - June 2010, compared to the same period in 2009.

The reason for the spread is that bedbugs are good travelers and hide in people’s clothes and suitcases.

Hope the bugs don’t bite

Although bed bugs are not known to transmit disease, their bites leave itchy blotches. Some people can have quite severe reactions to the bites and the small wounds can also lead to secondary infections of the skin such as impetigo, eczema, and lymphanigitis.

The small, flat insects feed on the blood of sleeping people. They are reddish-brown in color, wingless, and range from 1 to 7 millimeters in length. They have a distinctive sweet almond smell and can live several months without a blood meal.

Infestations usually happen around or near the areas where people sleep or spend a significant period of time. So as well as finding them at home they are most likely to be in hotels, nursing homes, hospitals, cruise ships, buses, trains - and in the office.

Not surprisingly, the latter day plague is ringing alarm bells among businesses - especially, but not exclusively in the hospitality industry. In fact, employers and hotels have already been hit with lawsuits over bedbug infestations.

Liability issues on the increase

The writing was on the wall before bedbugs really hit the headlines. In 2003, a federal appellate court awarded $372,000 in punitive damages, 37 times the compensatory award in the case, to a couple bitten by bed bugs while staying at a chronically infested hotel in Chicago.

In 2008, an employee working at the offices of Fox News in New York City filed a workers compensation claim for bedbug bites at work. She also filed a premises liability lawsuit against the building’s owner and management company for negligence in rectifying the infestation.

In view of the growing epidemic, all businesses should review their property and liability insurances and also think about how they would respond to bedbug related problems to do with staff or clients.

Meanwhile everyone should think about the advice offered by the National Pest Management Association in the US:

• Vacuum suitcases after returning from a vacation.
• Check your bedsheets for tell-tale blood spots.
• Consider bringing a large plastic bag to keep your suitcase in during hotel stays.
• Carry a small flashlight to assist you with quick visual inspections.
• Never bring second-hand furniture, especially mattresses and box springs, into a home without thoroughly examining for signs of a bed bug infestation.
• Regularly inspect areas where pets sleep for signs of bed bugs.

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