The common bed bug, also known as, cimex lectularius is the most disliked of household pests. Infestations are rampant, extermination can be difficult and treatments were sometimes risky to a person’s health. In battling today’s global resurgence of bed bugs, much can be learned from the past.
ANCIENT BEGINNING: Bed bugs have been biting since the beginning of time. Studies suggest they first parasitized bats and then humans, by inhabiting the same caves in the Mediterranean region where civilization began. Bed bugs thrived with the formation of villages and cities. Fossilised bed bugs have been unearthed from archaeological sites dating back more than 3,500 years. During that era the bed bugs were noted as a potion as well. To try to cure common ailment the Greeks and Romans burned them to make leeches loosen their hold. The Egyptians drank them to cure snakebite.
EARLIEST HISTORY AND SPREAD: As civilization grew the bed bugs spread throughout Europe and Asia. They were a noted presence in Italy by 100 A.D., China by 600 A.D., and Germany and France in the 1200s and 1400s. Heat generated from sleeping and cooking fires allowed the bugs to live comfortably both in castles of the wealthy and huts of the working class. Bed bugs were first reported in England in 1583. Soon after, they hitchhiked their way to the Americas with European explorers and settlers. Bed bugs are known to burry away in bags or to attach onto clothing to allow travel. The bed bug resurgence in recent years followed a similar pattern, with infestations in the late 1990s first appearing in such “gateway” cities as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami.
The global lineages of bed bugs can also be traced to their naming. In ancient Rome, bed bugs were called Cimex (meaning “bug”), while the species designation lectularius referred to a bed or couch. Other names once used include wall louse, bed louse, wallpaper flounder, nightriders, red coats and crimson ramblers. Yuck!
EARLIEST BUSINESS: Methods of managing bed bugs today are modelled to the first European exterminators. Among the most famous were Tiffin and Son of London, who formed a business back in 1690 to exterminate bed bugs for the wealthy. The gas-lit sign over their shop read: “May The Destroyers Of Peace Be Destroyed By Us. Bug-Destroyers To Her Majesty.” Recognising the constant threat of infestation, Tiffin noted: “We do the work by contract, examining the house every year. It’s a precaution to keep the place comfortable as servants are apt to bring bugs in their boxes and clothes.” Tiffin reported finding the most bugs in beds, but cautioned, “If left alone they get numerous, climb about the corners of the ceiling, and colonize anywhere they can.”
Century’s later pest management industry again advocated routine preventive bed bug inspections. Catching infestations early reduces spread into other areas and can lessen liability for some clients. Another of England’s earliest bed bug destroyers was John Southall, who published a 44-page treatise on bed bugs in 1730. The manual contained information on bed bug habits, prevention and control based on his experiences. To limit harborage and simplify treatment, he also suggested that beds be “plain and as free from woodwork as possible.”
1800’S: As noted earlier, bed bugs became abundant in North America with the coming of European settlers. As a deterrent, beds were often made from sassafras wood and the crevices doused with boiling water, arsenic and sulfur. Ships, railroads and hotels afforded ideal accommodations for the bugs. Wise travelers learned to pull beds away from walls and immerse the legs in pans of oil. Many formulas over the years claimed to control bed bugs. These formulas could result in incarceration today. By the mid-1800s, bed bugs had become a particular problem in poor, overcrowded areas with low standards of cleanliness. Wealthy households with an abundance of domestic help discovered that bed bugs could be kept in check with vigorous housecleaning— but the bigger benefit from such efforts was early detection of infestations in their more vulnerable initial stages: “The greatest remedy is cleanliness, and a constant care and vigilance every few days to examine all the crevices and joints, to make sure that none of the pests are hidden away” (USDA Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1875).
More to come!
Residents of an impoverished area of Vancouver were infested with bed bugs carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria, said researchers today Wednesday May 11th, 2011, and warn doctors to watch out for the potential problem.
A letter in todays issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases reported that two types of drug-resistant bacteria were isolated from bedbugs found on three patients.
The resistant bacteria were methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE), a less dangerous form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Christopher Lowe of the University of Toronto and medical microbiologist Marc Romney of Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital suggest bed bugs carrying MRSA could transmit the bacteria during a blood meal. Included is a citation to the full article which is being released in June, here:
“Because of the insect’s ability to compromise the skin integrity of its host, and the propensity for S. aureus to invade damaged skin, bedbugs may serve to amplify MRSA infections in impoverished urban communities,” Lowe and Romney write. The three patients lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which has high rates of homelessness, poverty, HIV/AIDS and injection drug use.
Similar to other cities worldwide, Vancouver has seen an alarming increase in bedbugs, particularly in Downtown Eastside, where 31 per cent of residents have reported infestations, the researchers said.
Likewise, MRSA is also a substantial problem in the neighbourhood, with nearly 55 per cent of skin and soft tissue infections in patients treated at St. Paul’s emergency department showing MRSA, the authors said.
In drug injection users with wound infections, an earlier study showed 43 per cent were colonized or infected with a community-acquired MRSA strain found outside of hospitals.
The study was small with just five bedbugs and very preliminary, but “it’s an intriguing finding” that needs to be further researched, said Romney.
Both resistant strains are often seen in hospitals, and experts have been far more concerned about nurses and other health-care workers spreading the bacteria than insects.
Given the high prevalence of MRSA in hotels and rooming houses in Downtown Eastside, the insects may act as “a hidden environmental reservoir for MRSA and may promote the spread of MRSA in impoverished and overcrowded communities,” the authors said.
So: This could be sticky but is it currently significant?
The authors point out that several research groups have tried in the past to link bedbugs and disease transmission (hepatitis) and failed. They certainly have not proven transmission in this case. But they also say that there is a density of these two organisms in the area where the men live that make it more likely that bedbugs could be involved in diseases pingponging through the neighborhood. First, there’s the high density of bedbug presence, in 31 percent of Downtown Eastside residents. Second, there’s the high prevalence of MRSA, in 58 percent of the skin infections in the St. Paul’s ER. And third, there’s the previously recorded and persistent presence of VRE in in-patients at St. Paul’s.
The US CDC believes that crowding, poor hygiene and skin disruption increase the likelihood of MRSA infection; crowding and poor hygiene are common in homelessness and shelter living, and bedbugs by definition disrupt the skin’s barrier by their bites. Meanwhile, in the ill and hospitalized, VRE frequently causes infections in disrupted skin, such as a surgical incision or a diabetic ulcer.
The authors have commented:
“…These insects may act as a hidden environmental reservoir for MRSA and may promote the spread of MRSA in impoverished and overcrowded communities. Bedbugs carrying MRSA and/or VRE may have the potential to act as vectors for transmission.”
To be clear: The victims here are also the ones who are likely to be most at risk. What this paper says, first of all, is that the substandard living conditions of being poor and homeless make those who are poor and homeless more likely to be vulnerable to yet more dangerous and difficult diseases. As with so many other health disparities in North American society, this is a social justice issue.
But if I am candid, it is also a reminder to the more-privileged rest of us that bedbugs have spread explosively, especially in poor communities, in a manner that is not completely understood, and that they pose a disease-transmission risk that is not yet well-defined.
We can assure you there will be more bed bugs to come and in the mean time I am going to check my box spring…