Bloodthirsty Bedbugs Stage Comeback in U.S., Europe

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In Australia the majority of reported infestations have been in budget accommodations and backpacker hostels. Bedbugs are also being found in homes, hotels, and even in cruise ships.

In the U.S. the parasites are now widespread along both the East and West Coasts and everywhere in between, says Cindy Mannes. Mannes is the director of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association, based in Dunn Loring, Virginia.

"The last 12 months have been particularly active," she said. "They are showing up like never before in hotels, hospitals, college dormitories, and multifamily housing units as well as single-family homes."

New York City has been hit particularly hard, says Andy Linares, president of Bug Off Pest Control Center, the city's biggest supplier of insect poison. He said the company now receives dozens of calls each week.

"It's a generalized problem found throughout the city, without regard to geography [or] economic or social status," Linares said. "What they have a taste for is a blood meal and harborage in dark cracks and crevices close to where humans rest and sleep."

Travelers and immigrants have been widely blamed for reintroducing the parasites. "With nowhere in the world now more than a few days away, it is easy to see how infestations of these insects may suddenly appear almost anywhere," said the Pest Management Consultancy's Boase.

Tropical Bedbugs

In many less developed countries infestation levels are similar to those seen in 19th-century Europe. In some Indian and African cities, at least 65 percent of homes are infested by tropical bedbugs (Cimex hemipterus), studies indicate.

But Boase isn't convinced that international travel is behind the bedbug pandemic. If it were, he says he would expect tropical bedbugs to be turning up alongside the better known temperate bedbugs (Cimex lectularius).

Boase has carried out surveys of areas of southern England that have a high percentage of foreign nationals. Those surveys haven't detected a single tropical bed bug.

This isn't to say that temperate bedbugs aren't hitchhiking to Britain from elsewhere. But Boase believes the origins of the problem lie closer to home.

For instance, some scientists suspect bedbugs may have developed multiple resistances to pesticides. A recent study in East Africa found a link between the use of mosquito nets treated with insecticides and the development of insecticide resistance in bedbugs.

Boase also points to the fact that pest treatments have become more species specific. Previously, broad-spectrum insecticides used on cockroaches and other pests also wiped out bedbugs.

In Australia tropical bedbugs were reported for the first time last year. And air travel does appear to be a factor, according to Stephen Doggett, from the Department of Medical Entomology at the ICPMR.

Doggett says that 74 percent of all bedbug interceptions ever reported by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service have occurred since 1999. The bugs were found mainly in personal baggage arriving from Asian or Pacific countries.

Doggett suggests that the stigma attached to the parasites is influencing hotels and other accommodations to ignore infestations or treat them without professional help. Lack of professional treatment comes with great risks, he warns, notably the possibility of litigation.

"In a landmark case a motel chain in the United States was successfully sued for [U.S.] $382,000 after guests were bitten by bedbugs [Matthias v. Accor, 2003]," he said.

It's only a matter of time, Australia-based Doggett adds, before litigation over bedbugs occurs in his own country—just one more reason these pesky parasites are causing so many sleepless nights.

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