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Analysis: Bed bugs on board

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Published: 26/02/2016 - Filed under: News »

British Airways has confirmed that passengers on a recent inbound Boeing 747 flight  from the US found some unwelcome stowaways on board: bed bugs. Cimex lectularius, to give the tiny insects their official name, feed exclusively on blood – usually human – and their bites can lead to large, itchy lumps in some people, although others have almost no reaction at all.

Reports had been circulating  on social media in the past few days about passengers spotting the bugs on their flight, although the issue gained traction today when it was reported in the Sun newspaper. 

It claimed that a whole row  of seats in economy on the Jumbo had to be vacated and there was no time  to fumigate the aircraft before it went back into service. BA, however, said that only a couple of  bedbugs were found on the aircraft, which was then disinfected and cleaned before going back into service, contrary to the Sun’s claims.

In a statement it explained that whenever any report of bed bugs was received, “we launch an investigation and use specialist teams to treat it – this happened in this instance”.

It added: "British Airways operates more than 280,000 flights every year, and reports of bed bugs on board are extremely rare. Nevertheless, we are vigilant about the issue and continually monitor our aircraft."

Bed bugs found on aircraft are not unusual, although BA does have some previous experience of how bed bugs on planes can attract undue attention.

In 2011, a 28-year old Yahoo media manager called Zane Selkirk who  claimed to have been bitten by bed bugs on a North  Atlantic BA flight  while travelling in the World Traveller Plus cabin, vented her annoyance by creating a website  (since taken down) to publicise her experience – with pictures.

All airlines suffer from negative comment on the issue as a result of others following Ms Selkirk’s example on Twitter and Facebook to chart their own experiences. But it should be no surprise  to find bed bugs on aircraft, since they are mostly brought on board by passengers in their carry on luggage. And usually the bugs have hitched a ride from the traveller’s hotel room rather than home. 

Hotels, however, have traditionally been reluctant to say anything about bed bugs at all. A general manager of a five-star London hotel recently told me (without a hint of irony):  “It’s the elephant in the room as far as the hospitality industry is concerned and not something we like talking about publicly.”

But having virtually disappeared as a nuisance in the second half of the 20th century – driven out by aggressive use of  pesticides – they have staged something of a revival in the last decade or so.

While there are no official figures on the incidence of bedbugs  found in hotel rooms, there is some indication that the problem is worsening. The Times newspaper’s medical columnist, Dr Mark Porter, recently claimed  that ”over the past 20 years there has been an explosion in the number of premises calling in pest controllers”  to deal with bed bugs.

The rise in infestations has not only been caused by the move away from environmentally-unfriendly pesticides but also the increase in global travel – and hotels, not surprisingly, are a home away from home for bugs as well as business travellers.

Bed bugs are also experts at hiding – preferring to lay dormant during the day and  able to hide in the smallest of spaces, such as the seams of mattresses and bed frames.

Yet science may yet provide an answer. Earlier this month scientists in  the US   revealed  they had mapped the genome of bed bugs and used this to track their DNA through the New York subway, with the aim of not only creating more effective insecticides but also for use in medical research  on improving  human blood thinners to prevent strokes.

And it is worth remembering that while bed bug bites can be life-threatening if anaphylaxis occurs, this is very rare. According to the NHS, bed bugs do not transmit any human diseases and their main impact for many is the psychological distaste of being bitten.

But for nervous flyers worrying about being trapped on an aircraft with bed bugs, there is a more practical solution. For $4.99 (available on Amazon)  a US company called Bug Off, which sells screen doors and other anti-insect measures for the home, offers a dozen plastic covers especially tailored for airline seats to give maximum protection against the business traveller’s foe.

David Churchill 

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