Bed Bug Health Risks

A British Airways (BA) passenger recently had a very uncomfortable 10-hour flight between Los Angeles and London Heathrow.

Zane Selkirk, (28) who works for Yahoo!’s media group, was horrified to realise very quickly that she was being bitten by bed bugs during the flight.

She complained later to BA that her seat and blanket were ‘crawling’ with bugs and she was left ‘covered with bites’ after the flight in January 2011.

As her complaint was at first ignored by BA, Selkirk set up a website – – to draw attention to the problem of bed bug infestation on BA planes. (She had a similar experience on a British Airways flight in February.)

BA responded to the website and Ms Selkirk’s complaint by fumigating one of the planes on which it found there was indeed an infestation of bed bugs.

Their unhappy customer had commented: “I discovered bugs crawling literally all over me, multiple generations of bugs were found to be infesting my seat and headrest.

I turned on my light to find bugs crawling on my blanket and a bed bug blood-spattered shirt. I left my ten-hour flight to find my body covered with 90 bug bites. All I can be sure of is that when I got on the plane my skin was clear of bites. When I got off, I had 90.”

Apart from the extremely unpleasant experience of being bitten by so many parasites, does Ms Selkirk run any risk of contracting infection or disease from the bugs?

It’s an important question since bed bugs are reaching epidemic proportions in parts of the USA, affecting hotels, schools and other public and private buildings.

The general consensus among medics and parasitologists is that bed bugs are annoying but not able to transmit infection. In February 2011, the Entomological Society of America (ESA) held a National Bed Bug Summit – “Advancing Towards Solutions to the Bed Bug Problem.

” The meeting, in Washington DC, was organised by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and focused on prevention and control of the parasites plus the current state of bed bug knowledge and future research requirements.

In fact, bed bugs are a health risk and do cause health problems. Because their bites are itchy, sufferers tend to scratch them and scratching can lead to mild or serious skin infections.

This in itself makes bed bugs a health risk and more so where multiple bites are suffered. Potentially worse, in cases where infestations are particularly bad, sufferers may be bitten repeatedly over a period of time.

When this happens, susceptible individuals become progressively sensitized to the bed bug saliva injected into their skin with each bite.

This can mean that at a certain point the victim will have a serious systemic reaction to being bitten. The life-threatening condition of anaphylactic shock has even been experienced in some rare cases.

There is another point, too, about bed bug health risks. Medical opinion is careful to state that bed bugs are not known to transmit infection.

That’s a different scientific and medical proposition from stating that bed bugs do not or cannot transmit infection. Look at Ms Selkirk’s experience.

In one ten hour period she was bitten around 90 times. What if those parasites had spent the previous day feeding on a victim who had a bacterial or viral infection?

It is not definitively proven that their saliva cannot transmit those infections to a new host’s bloodstream. Or what if, once Ms Selkirk’s skin was bitten and broken and blood was on the surface, the dozens of bugs had tramped around those bites spreading bacteria?

One expert, Robert A. Schwartz, MD, MPH, Professor of Dermatology, Pathology and Community Health at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School has written that:

“Bedbugs may be a vector for Hepatitis B and, in endemic areas, for American trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease). ….Reports have indicated the risk of insect transmission of HIV, if any, is extremely low and likely nonexistent.”

Which does rather indicate that the Washington Summit was right to emphasize the need for more research into bed bugs, their activity, and control. Tellingly, Dr Coby Schal of North Carolina State University said this:

“Although bed bug research has been increasing we have about 50 times as much research on mosquitoes as on bed bugs.”

There was a time when malaria was thought to be spread by “bad air”. The Italians came up with this theory (and hence the name of the disease).

Later, it was of course discovered that mosquito bites transmitted the infection. And it was over 220 years after the bubonic plague wrought havoc in London that scientists discovered plague was transmitted by the bites of fleas living on black rats.

So let’s hope the medical community is not complacent about bed bugs – and that scientists’ research will find effective means of controlling and destroying these nasty parasites that get everywhere from hotel beds to airplane cabins.