Bed bug infestations in the US have become so common, for instance in hotels, apartments, colleges and homes, that insurance companies are starting to offer new plans to hotels and residential property managers.

One insurer, New York-based Willis North America, announced their new plan at the end of June, explaining that that bed bug infestations “have given rise to a range of allegations and claims including bodily injury, property damage, and mental anguish”.

The financial damage comes not only from getting rid of the infestation, but also loss of income, and expenses from “managing the crisis”.

John Lafakis, Senior Vice President at Willis and Program Manager for their new bed bug insurance plan, said bed bug outbreaks can also damage an organization’s reputation or brand. Their bed bug insurance includes a 24/7 crisis hotline, and the services of an expert team to deal with regulators, public health authorities, customers, employees, and the press.

Lafakis told the Los Angeles Times recently that legislators in the state of New York Assembly are also trying to make it mandatory for insurance companies to offer bed bug cover.

Greg Gatti, a director at Aon Risk Solutions, another company that also recently announced a new policy to cover bed bugs, told the LA Times:

“Ten years ago it was considered a minor pest issue.”

In fact, bed bugs have lived with humans for thousands of years, feasting on their blood as they sleep. Numbers dwindled significantly after World War II, when DDT was used to eradicate them from many countries. But then we banned DDT because it contains cancer-causing toxins and was killing off wildlife. So since then, bed bugs have been creeping back into hotels, hospitals, homeless shelters, and other places where there is a high turnover of overnight human guests.

Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are small flat oval-shaped parasitic insects about the size of an apple seed. They are brownish red in color and go unnoticed to the casual observer.

They come out at night to feed on the blood of sleeping humans and animals and then retreat to any small crack and crevice they can find. This includes places where you may never think to search, such as cracks in walls, headboards, seams of lampshades, carpet joins and edges.

If disturbed, bed bugs will move and hide in even more remote areas, which is why they are so difficult to get rid of once an infestation has taken hold. They can also live for several months without a feed, so you may think you’ve got rid of them only to find they return weeks later.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although bed bugs have traditionally been seen as a problem of developing countries, they are increasing rapidly in parts of the US, Canada, the UK and other European nations.

“Bed bugs have been found in five-star hotels and resorts and their presence is not determined by the cleanliness of the living conditions where they are found,” say the CDC.

There are several suggestions as to why bed bugs are now so prevalent. One reason is they have developed resistance to many pesticides, and another is that humans are now globetrotting on a scale not seen before.

Information issued to travelling students at the University of Minnesota contains detailed instructions on how to inspect personal effects to look for signs of bed bugs. This includes looking carefully inside seams, cracks and folds of material such as bags, shoes, and clothing. If you find any, then put the offending item in a plastic bag, they suggest. If you can wash it in a washing machine, then set it to the hottest the fabric can stand. If you can’t, then use hot water and a scrubbing brush to remove the bugs. Dispose of the plastic bag in a sealed garbage bag, and if you take any items that might be infected to the dry cleaners tell them about your suspicions.

Many experts suggest you seek help from a professional pest control company if you think your house is infested, because there are so many places the bugs could be hiding in.

The chair of the Connecticut Coalition Against Bed Bugs, Gale E. Ridge, an entomologist and bed bug specialist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, told the LA Times she has even found bed bugs in the TV remote. You won’t find them on your body, because unlike lice, they “want to get off of you as soon as they can and get back to their refuge,” she explained.

Fortunately, although their bites itch and can turn into unsightly welts, bed bugs do not as yet carry human diseases, although some sources suggest it is just a matter of time before an opportunistic pathogen starts hitching a ride. In fact, it has recently been suggested they carry the superbug MRSA.

Sources: LA Times, CDC, University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic, Willis press release.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD