Of all the scourges that hit nursing homes, there is one that always causes me to shudder. It’s not pressure ulcers or norovirus, C. diff or MRSA. It’s something less dangerous, but that I respond to viscerally because I have experienced it myself: bed bugs. That’s why I am so excited by the news that 2015 could a turning point in the war against the pests.
My own bed bug nightmare took place in New York City during the summer of 2006, after my roommate and I relocated to Queens. When I began to feel unusually fatigued, I blamed the heat. I thought the bites on my neck and ankles were from mosquitoes.
And then the light bulb went on. I knew we had bed bugs, and I knew from the horror stories routinely appearing in the local press that getting rid of them would be an ordeal.
An ordeal it was, involving copious loads of laundry, trashing an assortment of belongings, and vacating the apartment overnight during the extermination. But the periods before and after the extermination were the worst.
Before, I went to bed each night with dread and disgust, knowing that no matter what I wore, the bugs would find a way to feed on me. After, I obsessively checked myself for bites, sniffed for the bugs’ telltale smell, monitored their likely hiding spots — all the articles on the NYC bed bug plague emphasized how difficult it is to truly eradicate the bloodsuckers, how victims begin to go crazy.
My roommate and I put some of our possessions in garbage bags and left them out on the fire escape for days under the blazing sun. This, we had been assured, would kill the bugs. Months later, I left for grad school in St. Louis. I took the trash bags — which I had never opened — with me. About to open them in my new apartment, I was seized by a fear that I was going to unleash Big Apple bed bugs in Missouri. A year later, I tossed the bags — still unopened — in a Dumpster.
I know many people have dealt with far worse infestations. But my own experience, which bred such fear and paranoia in me, enables me to imagine how awful it would be to live in a long-term care facility with a beg bug issue. Especially for a resident who is not mobile and spends most of the day (and night) in bed, I imagine it must be a terrible invasion.
So here’s the good news: Researchers in Canada have literally built a better mousetrap, er, bed bug trap. The traps attract the bugs with a chemical combination and — the investigators’ crucial discovery — they use histamine to get the pests to stay put.
They caught 100% of bed bugs in field trials. And the traps are cheap, using about 10 cents worth of chemicals each. A commercial version could hit shelves later this year.
The traps might not work for large infestations because if the bugs sense an area is becoming too crowded, females tend to start wandering off. (Blame a vicious mating ritual.) However, the innovation should allow for more effective monitoring of these big infestations, and could eradicate smaller ones, according to the developers.
Researcher Regine Gries certainly deserves special recognition. She kept a colony of bed bugs alive for experiments by feeding them from her own arm. She reportedly has been bitten more than 180,000 times over the last five years. She says she has a very mild physical response. I still vote we give her a medal, especially if the new trap leads to fewer trash bags on fire escapes, and more long-term care residents feeling safe and secure in their beds.
Tim Mullaney is McKnight’s Associate Editor. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.