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War on bed bugs

Posted 15/11/2012 by cgodfrey

As a frequent traveller, I am horrified by reports of the increasing spread of bed bugs. A US friend whose lawyer husband recently brought them back from a trip to the West coast – after staying in a very upmarket hotel that would accept no responsibility – shuddered to tell me how a sniffer dog and handler had finally tracked down the source of the problem to his suitcase, which was promptly bagged and sealed, along with some of the contents that had yet to be unpacked, and shipped away at her request for disposal.

My friend, however, was lucky the problem was detected early enough that full scale household decontamination was deemed unnecessary. In many cases, bed bugs are eradicated by the use of specialised insecticides – applied by qualified pest management professionals – or by rigorous heart treatment of mattresses and other household furnishings where the bugs breed.

This week’s report, then, that researchers have successfully used an already approved drug to wipe out bed bugs, comes as welcome news. Until, that is, you read the small print. The drug in question is Merck’s Ivomec (ivermectin), a treatment used against parasitic worms responsible for horrific diseases such as river blindness, elephantitis and lymphatic filariasis, associated with swelling of parts of the body. And, according to the story on Bloomberg, the researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, US, carried out the bed bugs study by testing the drug over ‘five bed-bug blood meals’ on themselves!

It seems that the treatment was pretty effective: the drug was reported to have killed 42% of the adult bugs 54 hours after it was taken, and also interfered with their ability of bed-bug nymphs to shed their outer exoskeleton, a key part in their development.

While the results may yield potential new approaches to dealing with bed bug infestations, however, the prospect of a drug treatment for bed bugs is probably some way off. Few drugs come without some side-effects, and it is doubtful whether doctors would prescribe ivermectin to otherwise healthy individuals. Meantime, I will be checking the Bed Bug Registry for any reports of bug activity at hotels where I am staying, and keeping my suitcase well clear of the carpets.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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