The news was abuzz today with reports about a new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, from Jerome Goddard and Richard DeShazo. It’s a review of past research on the question of whether bed bugs transmit disease.
. . . in the April 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reviewed all of the studies done on the pesky critters to date and found no evidence of disease transmission.They did find that some people have reactions to the bites, but these reactions are usually short-lived.
“While there is a nuisance effect from bed bug bites, the public health significance is minimal,” said study author Jerome Goddard, an associate professor of entomology at Mississippi State University in Jackson. “It’s not good. Nobody wants to have blood sucked out of them, but in the scheme of things, they’re not carrying malaria or anything like that.”
Goddard and his colleague, Dr. Richard deShazo from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, reviewed 53 studies on bed bugs published over the past 50 years.
Interestingly, they found that only about half of the people who are bitten show signs of a bite. And, for those who do react, the reaction can vary from a slight red spot that’s intensely itchy like a mosquito bite to anaphylactic shock (a life-threatening allergic reaction), according to Goddard. But, he noted, anaphylactic shock is very rare.
via Yahoo’s Bed Bugs Bring No Disease Danger.
7ONLINE.COM in New York also picked up this story.
I do appreciate what the study is doing to bring together knowledge from prior studies done on this question. Bed bugs are not now known to be transmitting a disease like malaria, and believe me, I am glad. It’s important to note, however, that we don’t know whether this will always be the case.
Even if it were, I feel strongly that if itchy skin reactions, sleeplessness, and stress were the only health effects caused by bed bugs, that these — in many cases — can be seen as significant health problems for sufferers.
But those are not the only health effects caused by bed bugs.
We have heard from readers of this website who went to the ER with anaphylactic shock because of bed bug bites, and those who have been diagnosed as having an Acute Traumatic Stress Disorder arising from the anxiety of living with a chronic bed bug infestation.
While such reactions are rare, many people do not sleep properly, often while battling bed bugs for many months (or longer).
There are also people on low incomes who have to decide between spending precious funds on nourishing foods, medicines, and other necessities, or on bed bug sprays, plastic bags, and endless loads of laundry. In this economic climate, surely bed bugs are affecting the health of children and elderly people in these situations?
And what about people who — in acts of desperation and in the absence of good, affordable, professional help — attempt to self-treat their bed bug problems, harming themselves by inhaling pool-grade diatomaceous earth, or over- and mis-applying pesticide sprays?
As the Yahoo article notes, bed bugs can be extremely hard to treat, especially in multi-unit dwellings. More people than you think are living with chronic, ongoing bed bug infestations.
The media keeps telling us that stress or a chronic lack of sleep in and of themselves may contribute to serious health problems and even to the onset of disease.
The World Health Organization thought enough of the public health significance of bed bugs to put them on the cover of their 2008 report entitled The Public Health Significance of Urban Pests, which you can download here.
The WHO said in this report last year,
Besides the effects of direct bites, airborne common bedbug allergens that are always released during infestations may produce bronchial asthma. Within a group of 54 asthmatic Egyptian patients, 37.1% reacted positively to a common bedbug head and thorax extract, and 50.1% reacted positively to an abdominal common bedbug extract (Abou Gamra et al., 1991). Numerous routine bedbug bites can contribute to anaemia and may even make a person more susceptible to common diseases (Usinger, 1966; Snetsinger, 1997). Some people can develop a general malaise from numerous bedbug bites; that, along with the loss of sleep and extreme itching of bug bites, can lower a person’s vitality and make individuals listless and almost constantly uncomfortable (2008: 138-139).
And, the WHO recommended that
Research should be encouraged and carried out to determine whether or not bedbugs can successfully transmit human pathogens, especially those that cause new or emerging diseases (2008: 149).
Research should be encouraged and carried out to further characterize the nature and effective treatment of the effects on people of unusual, extreme or very persistent bedbug bites (2008: 149).
Let’s definitely be grateful bed bugs have not yet been shown to transmit disease, but let’s also hope entomologists continue to study this question — and other questions about bed bugs’ effect on public health — with continuing research.