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Bedbugs encounters on the rise

I've seen what bedbugs can do to a 6-year-old child, and it's not a pretty sight.

Last month the EPA held its first National Bed Bug Summit to address the resurgence of these nocturnal bloodsuckers. The pesky critters are on the rise, especially in motels and public housing, but I remember encountering them back in the early 1970s when I was teaching far back in the Tennessee mountains.

Lois, a first-grader in my class, fell asleep around noon every day. Another teacher and I were curious enough to ask why. Lois said she couldn't sleep at night because bugs bit her.

We asked a few more questions, then she peeled away her threadbare sweater. We were horrified! Lois' tiny back was almost blood-raw. I'd never seen bedbug bites before, but I ventured a guess that was confirmed by health department workers who went to the isolated mountain home that was little more than a hollow shack.

Lois and other children in the family slept on makeshift beds that were infested with bedbugs. Health department workers took over, and their management of the situation, though common for that time, is now almost as startling to think of as is Lois' chewed up back.

They handed us a tin can, similar to a large salt shaker, and told us to keep it outside on a peg mounted on the wall. When Lois arrived each day, we were to sprinkle the white powder on her coat and leave it outside. The white powder was DDT, a once widely used insecticide that is now banned.

Something worked: In a few weeks Lois was able to stay awake, the bug problem solved.

I've had only that one encounter — which was enough for me — but friends have told me about their experiences with the nasty bloodsucking insects in motels along interstate highways. Apparently the hard-crusted, apple-seed-size insects have been lying in wait and multiplying rapidly. That, coupled with difficulties on how to control them, has created problems for travelers and establishments trying to ensure cleanliness without losing business.

Recent reports say bedbugs are reaching high numbers in many hotels, even some of the pricier ones. They're also being found in movie theaters, dorm rooms, public transportation, nursing homes and low-cost housing, according to a report from the University of Kentucky Agriculture Department.

The tiny, brown flat bugs can be seen easily and usually hide out in bedding, particularly in the seams and folds of mattresses. They wait for an innocent victim to lie down, then they launch their attack on exposed body parts, piercing the skin to draw blood. When asleep, the victim may not even feel the bite but may notice welts and itching upon awakening. The bites are not known to transmit disease but can cause infections and allergic reactions.

The Pasco County Health Department has had only a few inquiries about bedbugs, said Deanna Krautner, the agency's health education and communications coordinator. She said questions regarding hotels and motels, nursing homes and public housing go to appropriate agencies for each, who then deal with potential problems.

So what can the average person do besides cringe and suddenly go into a fit of itching at the very thought of these insects?

Awareness and vigilance are probably two of the best techniques in dealing with bedbugs. As summer vacation time arrives, it's best to keep the little critters in mind and use precautions.

When checking into hotels and before even taking luggage or bags into the room, peel back sheets and bed covers to mattress level. Check the seams, and if there is spotting or signs of anything suspicious, report it and ask to be transferred to another room far away from the original one. Repeat the check in the new room. For extra precaution, even if you see nothing suspicious, place luggage and bags on stands or shelves off the floor.

In the event bedbugs are encountered and taken home, the problem goes to a new level.

Of course DDT is no longer available. But extreme heat and cold can be just as lethal.

Infested items can be placed in a clothes dryer of medium to high heat for 10 to 20 minutes. This can be done prior to or in conjunction with washing. Items can also be bagged and sealed in large zip-top bag and placed in the sun or a hot, closed automobile for several days. Or toss the bagged and sealed items in a freezer for a couple of days.

In extreme cases, it's often necessary to fumigate entire buildings, an expensive procedure.

Thankfully, bedbug bites don't have a lasting effect. Lois made a rapid turnaround and carried on with her first-grade work. Most victims endure the itching and continue with what they usually do, and with the right treatment they can make sure they don't let the bedbugs bite again.

Fast facts

Want to learn more?

The Pasco County Health Department steers people looking for information to this Web site:

Bedbugs encounters on the rise 05/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 11, 2009 3:41pm]
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