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Bedbugs Biting Again in U.S. (and How to Bite Back)

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
October 19, 2006
 
It's supposed to be the happiest place on Earth. But for Eunice Juarez,
her trip to California's Disneyland last August was a nightmare.

She says she and her two teenage sons, Miguel and Alan, were bitten by hundreds of bedbugs at the Fairfield Inn across from the theme park's main gate.

A lawsuit seeking unspecified damages was filed last week.

Juarez's lawyer, Alan Schnurman, says that on the fourth morning of the family's stay, Juarez awoke with a bloody nightgown. Juarez, he says, suffered 650 bites, while her sons had 500 bites between them.

(Related: "'No Sting Too Painful' for Bug Attack Scientist" [March 30, 2004].)

The family sought medical treatment at two hospitals: one in the United States and one in Mexico, where they reside.

"Bedbugs are not a joke by any means," said Schnurman. He adds that he's been flooded with calls from other bedbug bite victims around the country.

Marriott International, Inc., owns the Fairfield Inn chain. The corporation did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Not Uncommon

The Juarez's case isn't isolated.

The bloodsucking bugs were virtually eradicated in the United States in the 1950s. But they are now showing up practically everywhere—nursing homes, jails, apartment buildings, dormitories (video: bedbugs plaguing hotels and houses).

Experts blame the resurgence on increased international travel, immigration, changes in pest-control practices, and the bugs' growing resistance to insecticides.

"A lot of people still don't believe they truly exist," said Cindy Mannes of the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Virginia.

"They think it's a nursery rhyme," she said, referring to the popular nighttime saying "Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite."

In the last five years exterminators nationwide have reported a 71 percent increase in bedbug cases, she says.

The nocturnal creatures do not transmit diseases, but some people experience red, itchy welts or swelling anywhere from a few hours to two weeks after being bitten.

The most likely victims are travelers, who are either bitten in hotels or who unknowingly bring home the bugs in their luggage.

People who buy used furniture or rent furniture are also at risk.

(Related photo gallery: Body Bugs.)

Alarm Calls

Michael Potter, an entomologist and professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, saw his first bedbug in 2003.

Since then, he says, his phone hasn't stopped ringing.

"I've gone out on hundreds of infestations within the last three years, and before that I had never been out on one," Potter said.

In one case a girl was sent home from school, because the nurse thought she had chicken pox. The mother took her to two different doctors and neither one correctly diagnosed the problem.

"She had a massive infestation in her box spring," Potter said.

The bed had been donated to the family by their church.

Potter believes things are only going to get worse. He and his colleagues have found that several bedbug populations are resistant to pyrethroid insecticides, which are commonly used to treat infestations.

Biting Back

U.S. cities and states are taking action to fight the creepy crawlers.

Worried about the impact on tourism, Hawaii launched an education campaign on the increasing incidence of bedbugs.

In New York City a bill has been introduced to ban the sale of reconditioned mattress. And the California Department of Health Services released guidelines for the public on prevention and treatment.

Meanwhile the National Pest Management Association is actively working to educate hotels on how to recognize infestations.

"We're finding bedbugs not just in what many people consider to be fleabag hotels but also in five-star hotels," said Mannes, the association's spokesperson.

What to Do

To protect yourself when staying at a hotel, Mannes says, follow these suggestions:

Don't leave your bags on the floor. Place them on a table or luggage rack.

Immediately inspect your room. Lift up the bedsheets and look at mattress corners and around the headboard area. If you see something moving, it's probably bedbugs. Another sign of infestation is small brownish or reddish dots on linens and mattresses.

If you find bedbugs, alert management and immediately leave the room. Experts say not to panic, though. The bugs can travel through walls to nearby rooms, but the entire hotel may not be infested.

If you think you've brought bedbugs home from a trip, you might try the following:

Leave your suitcase outside for at least a day and immediately launder clothing. Put items that can't be washed, like leather shoes or toys, in the dryer for at least five minutes, says Potter, the entomologist. The heat kills the bugs.

Call a pest-control company, says Mannes, whose employer represents pest-control businesses.

Hunting Dogs

Ridding a home of bedbugs is a daunting task—not to mention tracking them down in the first place.

"The first thing is finding them," Mannes said. "That's the most difficult thing. It can take hours."

The insects hide behind baseboards, electrical switch plates, picture frames, even wallpaper.

In addition to a visual inspection, there are a few bedbug-detection dogs around the U.S.

Carl Massicott runs Advanced K9 Detectives in Milford, Connecticut. He says his dog Jada commands up to U.S. $200 an hour and can locate the bugs in a matter of minutes.

But, he said, "I don't exterminate. All we do is find them."

Once the bedbugs are located, several treatments may be necessary.

The University of Kentucky's Potter says there are few quick fixes.

"It's not uncommon at all to battle bedbugs for a period of months, and some infestations as much as a year."

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