In an effort to address the epidemic of bedbugs creeping through the nation, federal and local agencies are attacking the menace with effective measures.

Bedbugs, biting insects that thrive on the consumption of human and animal blood, have been around for thousands of years. Drawings of bedbugs have been found in ancient caves. By the 1950s bedbugs were eradicated in the United States with the use of controversial insecticides like DDT, which have since been outlawed because of their toxic and deadly effects on humans.

Without national standards regarding the extermination of bedbugs and increased international travel in and out the country, bedbugs are being easily spread by human activities.

“Maybe health authorities should be checking for signs of bedbugs in the luggage of people coming into the U.S. from international travel from airlines and cruise ships,” said Toleka Parham, 21, an international business major at American University. “When I travel, my focus is not catching malaria and other diseases. Now I have to think about bedbugs.”

Bedbugs are often found hiding in seams, folds or under buttons on such items as mattresses, box springs, upholstered furniture and cushions. However, bedbug inspections have revealed eggs, nymphs, casing and adult bedbugs in electrical outlets, voids in walls, electronic equipment, and cluttered areas. Reports of bedbugs at dormitories, libraries, storage facilities, nursing homes, hostels, hotels, movie theatres and other public places are increasing.

“The most important thing for the District government is to educate people about bedbugs so that appropriate and decisive actions can be taken immediately,” said Gerard Brown, program manager for the community rodent and pest control, DC Department of Health. “Bedbugs are everyone’s problem. They do not discriminate by race, ethnicity, wealth or cleanliness. It’s time to break the stigma associated with bedbugs and rid ourselves of the menace.”

Health experts are currently providing awareness training at senior centers and public housing facilities. At a recent event, a representative from DC Councilman Jim Graham’s office begged apartment dwellers not to take measures in their own hands. Henry Esivue Audu, 49, wished he had taken that advice. In March 2009, Audu purchased a used sofa bed at a furniture store in Northwest Washington. When he began to notice bedbugs crawling on the sofa, instead of waiting for management to correct the problem, he began pouring kerosene on the crevices of the sofa to kill the pests.

Several days later, the sofa burst into flames and caused an explosion. Audu suffered third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body. He remained hospitalized for over a year and currently stays in a crisis rehabilitation center. Unable to continue his career, Audu wants to educate others about the danger of using inappropriate chemicals to kill bedbugs. “I did what I heard others have done. But I should have reported the company to the authorities that sold me the sofa and waited for the exterminators,” said Audu.

Control is beyond the capacity of non-professionals. “It is cases like this that we want to prevent,” said Brown, who suggested:

Laws to destroy mattresses that are being thrown away to prevent bedbugs from being transported from one household to another.

Requiring anyone who works in lodging, housing and office buildings to be trained how to detect for bedbugs.

Laws that require an inspection of surrounding units of infested areas.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., introduced the Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009 to assist states in carrying out inspections of lodging facilities, train inspection personnel, contract with a commercial exterminator; educate owners and staff at lodging facilities. It also includes measures for prevention and management in public housing and requires the Center for Disease Control to investigate the public health implications of bedbugs on lodging and housing. A congressional hearing will be held Nov. 18 at the Capitol Visitors Auditorium.

The DC Department of Health will hold its second bedbug summit on Jan. 13, 2011, to discuss its latest campaign efforts to end bedbugs in the District and share new information and ideas on collaborative approaches to dealing with the pests. Please call 202-535-2636 to register.

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO