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Posted April 28, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Don't let the bed bugs bite

bed bug
This undated handout photo provided by the National Pest Management Association shows a bed bug in Gainesville, Fla. The federal government is waking up to what has become a growing nightmare in many parts of the country -- a bed bug outbreak. AP file

mother and child bed bugs
This photo provided by the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology, taken in 2008, shows mother and child bed bugs.

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By Natalie Austin -- naustin@nvdaily.com

A recent National Bed Bug Summit brings to mind chattering cartoon insects seated around a diminutive boardroom table, with microphones, bottled water, and pens and paper -- the stuff of a Disney movie -- complete with celebrity voice overs.

The Environmental Protection Agency National Bed Bug Summit, held April 14-15 in Arlington, however, was anything but funny.

The bed bug, once thought nearly eradicated and mistakenly only the scourge of the filthy, is back -- with a vengeance.

And, other than human blood, their tastes have changed. Bed bugs can be found in immaculate, five-star hotels in big cities or seedy, no-tell motels along forgotten highways. Hospitals, summer camps, movie theaters, homeless shelters are all havens inhabited by the insect. These tiny nocturnal bugs like to travel, don't like to sleep alone and prefer to feed on their bed mates.

That old saying that ends, "Don't let the bed bugs bite," doesn't elicit the same response it once did these days. Because, it's more likely that they might do just that.

Bed bugs are moving into more homes and hotels, camping out in mattresses during the day -- once thought to be their only venue -- or crawling as far as 20 to 30 feet to feed. They may have taken up residence in a bedroom's electrical sockets, curtain rods, wallpaper, picture frames and even clock radios.

The National Pest Management Association estimates a 71 percent increase in bed bug infestations since 2001.

"They seem to be certainly becoming a problem much more so than in the past," says David Gaines, state entomologist for the Virginia Department of Health. "They were kind of like a mythical beast. People told stories about them but they never saw one."

In the 1940s and '50s, Gaines says, the use of chemical insecticides started to disappear. In today's pest management, insecticides are much more pest specific. A cockroach spray won't kill a bed bug, he says.

Gaines prepared a report, "Control of Bed Bugs in Hotel Rooms," for the summit, listing their favorite hiding places and chemicals on today's market that single out the tiny blood suckers.

Hotels and motels were really the jumping off -- or in -- point for these pests, who would hitch a ride in travelers' luggage and head off to the next location. They can also hide in used furniture, such as a bedside table or bureau, and, unknowingly, be introduced into a home.

It's all about the blood, Gaines says, which is needed for the bugs to lay eggs and reproduce. Females lay about five eggs a day and between 200 and 500 in a lifetime. Under normal room temperatures, a single bed bug can live more than 300 days.

"Cleanliness has nothing to do with whether there is an infestation of bed bugs," he says. "They feed on sleeping people and are typically found where people reside at night."

Often getting rid of the pests in homes is more difficult, he added, due to the amount of clutter and potential hiding places for bed bugs.

Also, many times people don't realize they have an infestation because of the anesthetic the bugs inject into their victims before they bite. These highly efficient blood suckers also inject an anti-coagalent to make the blood flow faster. Itchy, red welts in the morning are one calling card, as are bloody fecal spots left on bed sheets. Once a large infestation occurs, the room also will give off a sickly, sweet smell, says Gaines. Some pest control companies use dogs to sniff out the pests.

Although the company mostly treats motels and hotels, says Harriet Harris of Best Exterminating Services Termite and Pest Control in Front Royal, residential calls come in, as well.

"We are seeing more. We used to never see any," she says.

Members of the National Pest Management Association report going from receiving one or two bed bug calls a year to one or two a week.

"People panic because they have been to a motel and think they are getting them," says Harris.

She attributes the increase to changes in pesticides and the fact that people are traveling more.

Some people have even brought the bugs in for identification, she says. Bed bugs are flat, reddish-brown insects, about the size of an apple seed. They are swollen and red after feeding.

If bed bugs are found in a home, beds must be taken apart along with other furniture, curtains taken down and bedding removed. The entire room and its contents are sprayed with an EPA-approved spray, says Harris. Bed linens should be washed in extremely hot water. Mattresses can be placed in special sealers to ensure any remaining bugs are dead. Normally, Harris says, people buy new mattresses following an infestation.

In hotels and motels, rooms above, below and both sides of an infested room must be closed for 14 days following treatment for an infestation.

New York City, Washington and other large urban centers have reportedly seen a marked increase in the critters.

Among the many points brought forth during the recent summit, attended by pest control professionals, universities, public health organizations and government agencies, was to have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include bed bugs as a public health pest, a distinction already held by the cockroach. More research is needed by the CDC, according to a report from the summit, to determine whether bed bugs could be disease transmitters. Asthma was specifically noted as a condition that could be aggravated, although there is no research to support it.

Despite their efficient biting apparatus, bed bugs have never been known to carry any diseases.

Even so, professionals attending the summit were in agreement that these tiny bugs deserved a lot more discussion.

More effective chemicals and reintroducing some old products were addressed during the summit. Education also was a major area of discussion including launching of bed bug curriculums for public facilities, a Web site, podcasts and public service announcements. Mini bed bug summits were recommended for all EPA regions. Voluntary bed bug certification for pest control companies also was listed. It was agreed that a second bed bug summit be held in the future.

Still, travelers and homeowners can be proactive in spotting bed bugs.

When traveling, take a look along the mattress seams and the bed frame, says Gaines. Tear the bed apart and look at the sheets.

At home, he says, call an exterminator. Bed bugs are not a do-it-yourself kind of pest control.

"They are not known to be disease carrier but they could drive someone to distraction," he says. "They are not good at promoting mental health."

Tips for travelers:

* At hotels, pull back the sheets and inspect the mattress seams, particularly at the corners, for stains or spots. If you see anything suspect, change rooms or establishments immediately.

* Thoroughly inspect the entire room before unpacking, including the headboard and in sofas and chairs.

* Consider bringing a large plastic trash bag to keep your suitcase in during hotel stays.

* Carry a small flashlight to assist you with quick visual search.

* After traveling, inspect your suitcases before bringing them into the house. Vacuum them thoroughly and wash all of your clothes in hot water.

* Bed bugs are elusive creatures, so it is imperative to seek professional pest control if an infestation is discovered in your home.

-- Source: The National Pest Management Association, www.pestworld.org

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