Another Holidays Worry – Bed Bugs

TheSunChronicle.com
Thursday, December 22, 2011

This holiday season, there may be more to worry about when checking off your Christmas list then packing, wrapping and reservations.

Suitcases, gift packages, car rentals and hotel rooms can all be sources of bed bugs - those sometimes hard-to-detect bugs that made headlines last year across the world when what experts called at one point, a preventable outbreak, seemed all of a sudden unstoppable.

"It's the word you never want to hear because it's just an ugly little critter," said Nate Weare, general manager at the Holiday Inn Mansfield. "I say, let's take a step back and know what we're looking at."

Alright.

Bed bugs, which the Center for Disease Control defines as small, flat, parasitic insects that feed on the blood of people and animals while they sleep, and most people describe as just plain icky, started showing up, it seemed, everywhere in 2010 causing, in some instances, panic among hotel guests and travelers who feared for their skin every time they checked in. Though news reports on the subject appear to have died down a bit since then, the problem has not gone away.

The 2011 Bugs Without Borders Survey, conducted by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), reports that 80 percent of member respondents say infestations are increasing across the country and that nearly all professional pest management companies have received bed bug calls within the last year.

"We do get bed bugs here, and it's just something we're going to have to deal with," said Tom DeJesus, service manager and director of training at Providence-based New England Pest Control. "It's just incredible how it's exploded."

DeJesus, who's been in the pest control business for 35 years, said in his first 25 years on the job he received in total less than a handful of bed bug service calls. Now, they're much more common, coming in at times on a weekly basis.

Reports have attributed the outbreak to increased international travel, policies that banned some pesticides and limited knowledge, among other things.

Travel almost certainly has something to do with it. The CDC says bed bugs are experts at hiding in luggage, folded clothes and bedding.

People then can carry bed bugs without even knowing - to hotel rooms, where the next guest can pick up the bugs and carry them on and so on and so on.

That's where the problem starts with hotels where, 80 percent of NPMA members report having treated for bed bugs this year, compared to 67 percent last year.

"People think of bed bugs and they think of sanitation, and that has so little to do with it," Weare said. "People have such a negative connotation."

DeJesus says it's almost a question of odds.

"Everybody travels and people just go," he said. "You just have to be careful."

In fact, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA) said the increase in bed bugs has had "a minimal impact on the vast majority of hotels."

AH&LA urges consumers to remember that bed bugs are brought in by guests and that hotels are not to blame.

The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has set guidelines for hotels, including the recommendation that they hire a licensed pest control company to regularly inspect the premises.

Often, though, a hotel doesn't know there's a problem until a guest comes down to the front desk pointing to a bite on their ankle - if even then.

"Some people get a bite and go to bedbugs.com," Weare said.

Weare's hotel was listed on bedbugreports.com, one of several consumer-watch type websites that have sprung up since last year promising a reliable source for which hotels have had bed bug problems.

He said the Holiday Inn in Mansfield hasn't had a bed bug issue, but that they did have a dog show take place there over the summer.

"If it's not a bed bug, it's generally a flea issue," he said. "We haven't had bed bugs in years and years and years. But that doesn't mean we won't have them tomorrow."

The Days Inn in Attleboro was also listed on bedbugreports.com.

A general manage there, who asked not to be identified, said the hotel did have an issue over the summer but it has been taken care of since.

She, too, said the panic of the general hotel visitor is misplaced.

"It's everywhere in the world," she said. "People travel and you don't know who brings them in."

DeJesus cautions that many of the bed bug websites could be misleading. Instead, he points people to visit the NPMA Website and those of pest control companies.

"I'm sure some of the sites are legitimate," he said. "But anybody can post something to one of those things."

The CDC says identification of bed bug bites is difficult without finding other evidence of bed bug infestation, including the actual bugs or their exoskeletons, because bites can take as long as 14 days to appear and may resemble those of a mosquito or flea.

It's also important to note that the CDC says bed bugs shouldn't be considered a medical or public health hazard.

DeJesus recommends, when traveling this holiday season, to keep your cool and do your best to keep the bed bugs away by examining mattresses, headboards and other easy hiding places as soon as you arrive in a hotel room, keeping your suitcase on a table instead of the floor, and unpacking your dirty clothes while still in the garage into a trash bag and directly to the washing machine.

"I used to be one of those people who would unpack my suitcase," DeJesus said. "I don't do that anymore."