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Bedbugs transmit bites and angst, but not disease, study says

Itch much? If you're battling bedbugs, you may be dismayed to hear that there's no proved treatment and resistance to chemicals that can eradicate the insects has grown.

On the plus side, a review of the banes of bed bugs (aka Cimex lectularius) in today's JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association notes that the critters—unlike other bloodsuckers—don’t transmit disease. Mosquitoes, for example, infect humans with malaria, dengue fever and a host of other unpleasant and sometimes fatal diseases, and ticks transmit Lyme disease. But the review, by entomologist Jerome Goddard of Mississippi State and allergist Richard deShazo of the University of Mississippi, found that bedbugs don't transmit HIV or hepatitis B as it was feared they might.

As we noted in our recent Ask the Experts piece on bedbugs, infestations are growing around the U.S., with complaints in cities including New York and Chicago on the rise. Once common mainly in hotels and hostels, bedbugs have spread to apartments, dormitories, single-family dwellings and possibly even subways and movie theaters, Goddard tells ScientificAmerican.com. Resistance to chemicals used to wipe them out, such as insecticides called pyrethroids, as well as growth in international travel and the bugs' tendency to hitch rides back to the U.S. in people's luggage, are to blame, he says.

It's impossible to tally the number of people who get bitten, Goddard says, but estimates about half of them suffer hives and itching. "When [bedbugs] feed, they're spitting saliva in there," Goddard says. "There's proteins in that and people can become sensitized." Antihistamines and steroids likely help reduce symptoms, Goddard says, but notes there aren't any controlled studies to prove it.

Because blanket use of pesticides has fallen out of favor (due to their potentially dangerous effects on humans and animals), Goddard doubts we'll be free of bedbugs anytime soon—if ever. "They can be eradicated from an individual house, but not from a geographical area," Goddard said. "They're just too much of the perfect pest. They're very small, very flat. They go in little cracks and crevices. Babies are smaller than an ant and can live up to a year without blood. They're here to stay."

In addition to conducting his study, Goddard let the bedbugs bite—him. Over six months, he allowed 15 of the buggers at a time to feed on him periodically, to no avail. "I fed them on me and there was no reaction," said Goddard, Mississippi's former public health entomologist. Nonetheless, he stresses, "I'm a bug man but I wouldn’t want to bring them home."

Image of Jerome Goddard examining insect specimens/MSU Ag Communications, Marco Nicovich

 

 

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