US & Canada

The bedbug summit - banishing the itchy insects

Bedbugs (file photo)
Image caption Bedbugs are becoming more resistant to chemical treatments, experts say

More than 300 people have gathered at the National Bedbug Summit in Washington DC to try to find ways to deal with the growing problem of infestations. Experts say bedbugs are now the "toughest pests to control", and that the insects are becoming more resistant to chemical treatments.

Warning - reading this could make you itch.

"I can't think of anything creepier than these little things that suck the blood out of you," says Bob Rosenberg, vice-president of the National Pest Management Association.

"You wake up with your sheets stained by faecal matter and blood; can you think of anything worse?" he asks.

With a description like that - perhaps not. And that is why more than 300 people, from lawmakers to pest controllers to academics, have met in the nation's capital to discuss ways to beat the bedbugs.

Bug bear

It's not your usual fodder for Washington summits, granted - but the issue of bedbugs is so widespread that representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Agriculture, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development are among the list of attendees.

Image caption Bedbugs can cause a nasty-looking rash when they bite

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 they are putting more money and manpower into tackling the problem.

"It's spreading throughout the country," says Bill Diamond, from the EPA. "It used to just be concentrated in hot spots but now we're seeing them pop up in lots of places."

Mr Diamond says that while cases are still mainly confined to cities on the East Coast, there are now reports of infestations in every state in America. The purpose of the bedbug summit is to determine the nature and scope of the problem and find ways to deal with it more efficiently.

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 adds.

Itchy infestations

This is one reason why the nation's pest controllers now say that bedbugs are the toughest insects to deal with.

"When you ask US pest control operators what is the most difficult pest to control - is it termites, cockroaches, bedbugs or ants - close to 80% say bedbugs are the most difficult," says Mr Rosenberg.

"There's not any one silver bullet, not one magic thing you can do that works all the time."

Bedbugs often live in the seams of mattresses, sofas and sheets, emerging to feed on their victims at night.

They are not known to carry diseases, but many people develop an itchy swelling when bitten.

Many people are now trying to deal with bedbugs themselves, and while this was a topic for discussion on the summit's agenda, experts say DIY treatments such as home chemicals and "foggers" - bug bombs - should be used with caution.

Fifty years ago, cases of bedbugs were virtually unheard of. Back then, chemicals such as DDT - which is now banned - were credited for killing them off.

In recent years, the rise has been attributed by some experts to an increase in international travel.

The numbers of people calling out professional help to eradicate bedbugs is now at an all-time high. Between 2006 and 2009 it tripled - with almost $258m (£160m) spent on treatments.

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

'Stigma misplaced'

One of the summit's attendees, Michael O'Leary from the Baltimore City Health Department, says his city saw a 93% increase in infestations between July and December 2010, compared with the previous year.

Image caption Michael O'Leary says cases in Baltimore rose significantly last year

"We see about 90 cases per month during the peak periods which is during summer. Overall we see maybe 650 to 700 cases in a year, and that's probably only a quarter of the actual cases," he says.

He has come to the summit in the hope of securing more resources to deal with the problem.

"We are doing what we can, but we could be doing a lot more," he says.

"The stigma around bugs is that they are caused by people being dirty, poor people, or through inadequate housing - that is not true.

"I often go to talks and I have a piece of string on me and I say picking up a bug during the day is as easy as picking up string on your clothes."

But perhaps a bit more uncomfortable.

There was very little head-scratching at the summit as the delegates crammed into the hall to hear such sessions as: "The cornerstone of control and prevention", "Using temperature extremes for best effect" and "Educating to increase successes in bed bug control".

All of this is working towards the creation of a National Bedbug Strategy - a comprehensive programme of education and research all aimed at killing the little critters off.

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