One day when she woke up, Eunice Kagweria had itchy pimple-like protrusions on her stomach and back. “It was such a unsightly mess on my skin,” she says. She had no other symptoms of illness but the amount of discomfort she felt was “excruciating.”
The mother of two remembers deciding to wait and see if the “pimples” would go away but they didn’t. Finally, a pharmacist told her she had bed bugs in her house. “I thought the chemist was lying: of all things, I told myself, it couldn’t be bed bugs.”
Eunice says the cleanliness of her household always took precedence before anything else, hence, her furniture couldn’t possibly have harboured the parasites to the extent of dozens of bites.
What Eunice was oblivious to is the fact that the blood-sucking insects don’t exactly come with dirt or untidiness. This is according to Fredrick Kanga, an exterminator at Bedbugs Kenya.
“Bed bugs are found in all strata of the society. They are with the rich, the poor, in public transport, luggage and every conceivable crevice. A single bed bug is enough to create a generation of others,” says Fredrick.
As Fredrick points out, bedbugs do not know social class or level of hygiene and can easily be transferred to households, vehicles or offices.
And there is no group of people who know this better than the residents of New York and Philadelphia who have, more than twice in a decade, been hit by a citywide outbreak of bedbugs. It got so bad in 2009 that it became a political issue, with the city forming a Bed Bug Advisory Board in 2009, and in 2011, holding National Bed Bug Summit in Washington DC. In fact, Americans spend more than USD 250 million a year fighting bed bugs.
Back in Kenya, social media has been abuzz with conversation by people who have encountered bedbugs inside public service vehicles and are blaming the mode of transport as the source of bed bug infestations in their homes.
Although it would be difficult to ascertain whether the vehicles are a source of the pests in homes, Frederick says it is not impossible. He points out that one may catch bed bugs from anything that harbours live species or eggs. Transiting from one part of Nairobi to another, argues Fredrick, is enough time for a bedbug or two to crawl onto your clothing and hide.
But there are other ways that bed bugs can be transferred to homes. Beatrice Wangui, a frequent shopper at a popular city market, says she nearly inoculated her home with the pesky insects. “It is my shopping companion who pointed out a bed bug crawling on the second-hand handbag I had selected,” she recalls. “I was lucky because I had already picked my choice and was ready to pay and move to the next vendor.”
However, Beatrice points out that she has learnt that it is not only used things that can harbour the parasites. She tells of a second incident when a furniture shop delivered chairs to her place of work. The seats were discovered to be infested by bedbugs. “Luckily, they were still in their plastic wrapping so they were quickly returned to the shop,” Beatrice says.
Fredrick concurs that bedbugs can be easily transferred. He explains that bedbugs are primarily spread through ‘hitchhiking’. Fredrick cites occurrences such as transporting luggage from one house to another.
Such situations extend the encroachment of bedbugs, eventually leading to an outbreak, as it has been reported in some parts of Nairobi in recent months.For this reason, Maryanne Kariuki, a stay-at-home mother and wife, has shunned used materials coming from other households. She says: “It is not only bed bugs that come with luggage from other households. Cockroaches, spiders, as well as other parasitic insects crawl along. I once bought a baby cot through trade-in. It was a sweet deal but I came to regret it. The bugs bit my son and caused him to cry. We were oblivious of what was happening so we treated him for allergy. Then we came to learn that most bed bugs in Nairobi are transmitted through second-hand buying.”
But Michelle Nduta, a furniture business owner, says people should be cautious even while buying new furniture. She admitted that many unscrupulous furniture businesses sell second-hand refurbished products as new to unsuspecting customers.
“All they do is rework the inside and cover it with new linen then sell it as though it was new. Bedbugs will remain hidden within the furniture until they emerge and start causing havoc. Unless one is keen enough, it is hard to distinguish new and refurbished furniture,” she says.
According to Michelle, herself having suffered a bedbug attack six years ago as a student in the university, many people are unaware of what bed bugs look like or how their bites present. She would wake up and find traces of blood smudged on her sheets. At the same time, her skin presented with characteristic itchy patches.
“I knew what they were because I had just come from a visit at my uncle’s. It was around the same time that his house was infested by the tiny blood suckers. It seems I carried a few with me back to my hostel,” says Michelle.
Her recollection of the situation at the time is still crystal clear. “I may never forget how hard I scratched myself as a lecture went on,” she says.
As a furniture dealer, Michelle says that some households sell their furniture at throw-away prices to second hand buyers, essentially trying to dispose of bed bugs together with them. “It is difficult to wipe out bed bugs a hundred per cent,” she says, “Even when you rid your house of old furniture and clothing, you may only be 80 per cent effective.”
Fredrick, however, says that only heat therapy can wipe out a bed bug population within a household. Initially, his team used fumigation at clients’ houses to arrest the spread of the blood-sucking insects. But over time, it has emerged that fumigation is not very effective. The most modern method Fredrick employs in killing bedbugs involves elevated temperatures.
“High temperature bed bug treatment has proven to be the best mode of wiping out bedbug populations,” he says. “Steam at about 50 degrees Celsius is able to kill all stages of bedbug’s life-cycle; including larvae and eggs.”
Fumigation, in Fredrick’s opinion, seems to have lost the battle against bedbugs. The chemicals, he says, are dangerous to both humans and the environment. This is a top growing resistance mounted by the parasites themselves against chemical-based remedies. Use of heat is a safer mode of action against bed bugs since they eradicate the eggs as well as adults, leaving behind a bug-free environment with little possibility of a repeat outbreak.
There are special machines that perform heat treatment in extermination of bed bugs. If professionally done, Fredrick says, heat therapy is 100 per cent effective.
There is no known medical cause for alarm with bedbug bites. Dr Peter Mbugi, an entomologist at Kenyatta University says that except for the pain of irritation, bed bugs are yet to be connected to transmission of vector borne diseases. However, wounds from the bites can be channels of infection by bacteria and other pathogens.