In Vancouver, scientists are analyzing the correlation between an outbreak of severe bacterial infections and a boom in bedbug infestations, according to a report initially released by The Associated Press. The trends are thought to be related and are cause for growing concern in U.S. urban areas, where bedbug outbreaks have been on the rise.
Hospital patients in British Columbia were afflicted by both attacks from bedbugs and infections from the dangerous MRSA bacteria (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). The number of coincidences led doctors to intuit a causal relationship.
Examination of five of the Canadian bedbugs revealed that three of the parasites were carrying MRSA, and two were carrying VRE, or vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium, another slightly less dangerous form of drug-resistant bacteria.
Though a definitive correlation has yet to be established between the blood-sucking bugs and the bacterial infections, researchers are examining the possibility that bedbugs have actually been spreading the germs. The incidents occurred in poor neighborhoods where crowding is considered by investigators to be a contributing factor in the spread of both the infections and infestations.
According to Dr. Marc Romney, co-author of the study released in Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “it is not clear whether the bacteria originated with the bedbugs or the bugs picked them up from people who were already infected.”
Although not generally disease-carrying insects, a bedbug is hypothetically capable of transmitting infections to a human if it comes into contact with blood via broken skin. The parasites are known for leaving itchy welts on skin after feeding, which are often scratched vigorously enough to break the skin’s surface, exposing the vulnerable human bloodstream.
Of particular concern to doctors and researchers is the fact that bedbugs’ populations have increased dramatically in the U.S. since 1995. As “hitchhikers,” the bugs spread easily through densely populated areas by latching onto clothing and skin and then repopulating upon relocation.
If the trend of mass infestation continues, and further studies confirm that the bugs are the source of the infections, health care officials will have to prepare for a scenario entailing potentially life-threatening infections spreading rapidly throughout the country via bedbugs.
Social analysts have noted a trend of public hysteria over the bedbugs in response to increased media coverage of rising occurrences of infestations. According to doctors, however, the public should be more concerned about contracting MRSA and other bacterial infections in places like hospitals rather than through bacteria-toting parasites.
Contact with patients and workers in health care settings is the most common method by which Staph infections are spread. The MRSA strain has developed a strong resistance to antibiotics, making treatments difficult and ineffective. MRSA can affect the heart, lungs, bloodstream, and bones, and is potentially life-threatening when vital organs become infected. More commonly, disfiguring, flesh-consuming abscesses will result from the contraction of MRSA microbes.
According to The Washington Post, residents of inner-city neighborhoods, like the aforementioned Vancouver community, are likely “more susceptible to infection because their immune systems are compromised by chronic illness, drug use, crowding and poor nutrition.”
While sound hygiene practices are a highly recommended method of preventing MRSA infections, they do not necessarily prevent bedbug infestations. Because the bugs are so adept at relocating and reproducing, experts recommend things like buying new rather than secondhand furniture and mattresses. Additionally, avoiding close contact with many different people and refraining from sharing personal items can help to ensure the bugs are not picked up and carried elsewhere.
Many experts maintain that, though compelling, the research from Vancouver is inconclusive in that it fails to identify the origin of the bacteria between the patients and the parasites.
According to Robert Wirtz of the CDC’s Center for Global Health, this preliminary study “emphasizes the need for some further studies to determine the potential bedbugs have for transmitting these agents. While the work was well done and it shows an association, it doesn’t establish that bedbugs are capable of transmitting the [Staph] bacteria.”
Further research, says Wirtz, should also reveal whether the bacteria were located internally or externally on bedbugs. Those results could have major implications in solving the medical mystery.
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