Experts are itching for bedbug control that goes beyond case-by-case management.
The red splotches and scabs along his arms make Colton Oser look like he’s suffered a nasty case of chicken pox, but the itchy 3-year-old in Whitehall actually has been attacked by an infamous nighttime monster.
Bedbugs are on the rise across the country, and experts warn that central Ohio needs to start looking into a comprehensive control program before infestations spiral out of control.
“If you bury your head in the sand, you’re going to get bitten, and it’s just going to get worse and worse,” said Susan Jones, an entomology professor at Ohio State University.
With a bedbug-awareness bill in the Ohio House and Cincinnati still recovering from infestation, Franklin County officials say they’re just starting to look beyond case-by-case management.
“We need to step it up,” said Charlie Broschart, supervisor for Franklin County community environmental health.
After a co-worker attended a conference on bedbugs in Cincinnati, Broschart said they spent Monday morning brainstorming ways to make people more aware of the problem.
Bedbugs had been nearly eliminated from the U.S. in the 1950s, but they’ve sneaked back thanks to international travel and a ban on harsher pesticides such as DDT.
The county started counting bedbug complaints about a year ago as calls increased, but Broschart said there has yet to be a comprehensive effort to collect and analyze information on bedbugs in central Ohio.
There’s also the matter of who is responsible.
“The question is: Is it a public health issue or not?” Columbus Health Department spokesman Jose Rodriguez said. “Bedbugs are really looked upon as a nuisance issue.”
OSU’s Jones, however, said scabbing, secondary infections and the anxiety caused by fearing your own bed are serious health concerns.
Code enforcement handles individual complaints, but Jones recommends a centralized master plan.
She suggested a task force that combines the expertise of pest control, health, code enforcement and housing agencies. Trends would be easier to spot with all the complaints and treatment numbers in one place, and a task force also could coordinate a publicity campaign to tell people how to stop the spread of bedbugs.
People should seal infested furniture in plastic before disposing of it; travelers ought to check hotel beds for pests; and exterminators need to know that bedbugs are harder to kill than most insects, experts said.
Jones works with a similar task force in Hamilton County. The group launched after the Cincinnati Health Department received 737 bed-bug complaints in 2007 — the same number as for mice, rats and roaches combined.
The Cincinnati department is requesting $348,000 for bedbug education and inspections for 2009, Assistant Health Commissioner Camille Jones said.
The agency’s home page is crawling with bedbug videos, warning labels for furniture and the number for a bed-bug hotline.
Columbus’s health department released its own tip list in March as bed-bug calls started coming in.
Ohio State University emptied 114 rooms in Jones Graduate Tower last year for bedbug control, and the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority has identified 124 infested residences so far this year. It also treated 500 surrounding housing units to keep the bugs from spreading, Director of Public Housing Claude Nesbit said.
He said his agency needs to double its extermination budget.
Regular pest control in one apartment costs about $60, but bedbug treatments cost $300, he said. Bedbugs require repeat visits and thorough spraying because the pests hitchhike on humans, rapidly reproduce and fit into the smallest cracks.
Clutter makes it difficult to find the bugs, so it’s hard to contain infestations in areas where people don’t have the resources to clear out their homes, experts said.
The problem isn’t limited to low-income apartment complexes, but complaints are more likely to reach officials in those cases because they take the form of landlord-tenant disputes.
The county, for instance, identified two bedbug infestations at an apartment building at 4218 Rickenbacker Ave. in November.
Broschart said it seemed to get better with a little pest control, but calls picked up again this summer.
After an order from the board of health, the landlord hired Orkin to start a new round of treatment Monday. By this point, Colton Oser’s mother, who has an apartment there, had started collecting the bugs in a bottle and naming them.