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Bed Bugs as Vectors of Trypanosoma cruzi

Prepared for NPMA Members by the Professional Pest Management Alliance (PPMA)
November 19, 2014

 

Background
In a study published online recently in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, researchers from Penn Medicine's Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics found that bed bugs are able to transmit Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, a parasitic infection, in a laboratory setting. Researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments that demonstrated bi-directional transmission of T. cruzi between laboratory mice and bed bugs, showing that bed bugs can both acquire and transmit the parasite.

A series of experiments conducted in controlled laboratory settings exposed bed bugs to mice infected with the parasite, and of the 2,000 bed bugs used in the experiment, the majority acquired T. cruzi after feeding on the mice. Another experiment found 9 out of 12 or 75 percent of uninfected mice acquired T. cruzi after cohabitating with infected bed bugs. A third experiment infected mice by placing feces of infected bed bugs directly on the animals' skin that had either been inflamed from bites or scraped with a needle. This exercise found 40 percent of mice acquired the parasite from a skin scrape and 20 percent were infected when the skin was only broken by the insects' bites.

Chagas disease, one of the most prevalent and deadliest diseases in the Americas, is a growing problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are approximately 300,000 human cases of Chagas disease in the U.S. As bed bugs have more frequent contact with people than kissing bugs, the current perpetrator and known vector of Chagas, this new discovery raises the alarm and speaks to the need for more research to be conducted.

The Penn Medicine report is important because it adds to the case of bed bugs being of significant public health importance. However, it's important to also note that the study did not examine or indicate any direct transmission of disease to human hosts. More research is needed into these transient pests to fully understand the applications of this study to human health. It is important for people to understand the biology and habitats of bed bugs and to be vigilant to help protect against the spread of bed bugs by routinely inspecting and monitoring for this pest and contacting a pest management professional where bed bugs are suspected or confirmed.

In an effort to communicate true and accurate information, not based on speculation and fear, the NPMA and PPMA feel it is important to provide NPMA members with industry talking points should companies be contacted for comment by the media. These may also be helpful and serve as a communications tool when fielding customer inquires on the topic.

Industry Talking Points

  • The findings of this study by researchers at Penn Medicine are important and intriguing because they show for the first time a bi-directional transmission of a parasite between a host and bed bugs. Although conducted in a controlled, laboratory environment, this indicates that bed bugs can both acquire and transmit a parasite, making them a plausible vector of disease.
  • The laboratory experiments in this study were conducted entirely between mice and bed bugs, and did not examine or indicate any direct transmission of disease to human hosts.
  • To date, there is currently no research or medically documented cases of humans contracting disease from the direct bite of a bed bug.
  • More research is needed to better understand bed bugs' role in disease transmission and their role in the epidemiology of Chagas disease.
  • Bed bugs are a transient pest and are extremely difficult to control. Limiting contact with these blood sucking pests and preventing infestations is vital to mitigating your risk of exposure. As the busy travel season is near, it is important for Americans to be vigilant and protect themselves by practicing prevention tips:
    • When traveling, pull back the sheets and inspect the mattress seams of the beds in rooms in which you'll be staying. Pay particular attention to the corners for telltale stains or spots. If you see anything suspect, notify management and change rooms/establishments immediately.
    • Thoroughly inspect the entire room before unpacking, including behind the headboard and in sofas/chairs. If any pests are spotted, change to a non-adjacent room immediately.
    • Consider placing your suitcase in a plastic trash bag or protective cover during the duration of your trip to ensure that bed bugs cannot take up residence there prior to departure.
    • Remember: bed bugs travel by hitching rides. After your trip, inspect your suitcases before bringing them into the house. Vacuum your suitcase thoroughly before storing away. Consider using a garment hand steamer to steam your luggage, which can kill any bed bugs or eggs that may have hitched a ride home.
    • Dry all fabric items (washed or unwashed) in a hot dryer for at least 30 minutes to ensure that any bed bugs that may have made it that far are not placed into your drawers/closet.
  • Bed bugs cannot be effectively controlled with do-it-yourself measures and require the help of a pest professional. If you suspect you have a bed bug problem, contact a qualified pest professional to thoroughly inspect your property and implement a treatment plan.

Additional Resources:

Penn Medicine press release: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/News_Releases/2014/11/levy/

Study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene: http://www.ajtmh.org/content/early/2014/11/13/ajtmh.14-0483.full.pdf+html

NPMA's consumer site for bed bug prevention tips and resources: allthingsbedbugs.org