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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 September 2007, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Itching to get at you
Buzz off: Mosquitoes can carry serious diseases

By Tom Heap
BBC News

From bedbugs to toxic moths, the number of pests in UK homes is on the rise. Why is this, and what can be done to curb their populations?

What you read below may not leave you sleeping so easily in your bed tonight - or any night.

From bedbugs and carpet mites to mosquitoes and toxic moths, the insect population in our homes is increasing. We're not overrun just yet, but many of our most common pests have had a good year and a few exotic ones have arrived too.

Experts say pests are now blinking at the edge of the public health radar screen. We only have to look at our European neighbours to see how the problem is escalating. In Belgium, the army had to be called in to tackle an infestation of moths recently.

Mosquito on skin
We don't spring clean any more
International travel and trade brings pests into UK
Climate change means warm, wet weather that pests thrive in
Tighter safety regulations mean many chemicals are banned
Source: Dr Moray Anderson
Pests carry the risk of severe irritation or disease, and changes in our lifestyles, climate and policy decisions could be giving them the upper hand.

For instance there has been a 500% increase in the bedbug population in the UK in just 12 months. The problem is that two-thirds of people don't initially know what the bites are and don't know to take action against the pest, says David Cain of the Bedbugs website (see Internet links on right).

The key signs are bloodspots from the bites on sheets, and skin irritation. Adult bedbugs are the size of an apple pip and their bites tend to itch intensely. Mr Cain says he's often called out to people who claim to have up to 150 bites.

"We had a case recently where there were an estimated 50,000 bedbugs in a single bedroom flat," he says.

And getting infected with bedbugs can be as simple as sitting on a seat after someone who has a severe case of bedbugs.

He's also dealing with an increasing number of airport workers who have found their homes infested, which he believes comes from handling luggage.

Nasty diseases

Pest expert Dr Moray Anderson says we are making life easier for pests. We travel more and so pick up bugs, clean our homes less and the climate is changing - our winters are less severe and our summers wetter, perfect conditions for pests to thrive.

Knowledge is 'best protection'
And there's the reduction of weapons in the pest controller's arsenal. Chemical safety laws are tightening, fewer insecticides are legal and the bugs are becoming immune to the handful that are left.

"We are making sure that we are not using quite so toxic chemicals, quite rightly so," he says. "But we have to be very careful we don't get the balance too out of kilter."

One pest that's thrived this summer is the mosquito. The rain provided little puddles everywhere where they can breed, free from predators. There are no fish lurking in that bucket left out in the garden and it can prove a perfect nursery for hundreds of mosquitoes.

But what really worries public health officials is not the number of mosquitoes, but the variety. They've set up "Mosquito Watch" to keep an eye out for Asian Tiger mosquitoes which can carry West Nile virus and Dengue fever.

Environmental health officers now patrol airports as the insects may hitch rides in plane cabins and breed in stagnant water close by.

Burrows beneath skin

Warmer winters could also be to blame for the arrival of some exotic pests. The Oak Processionary Moth is on its way from southern Europe as warmer weather fosters its survival. It was recently spotted in London for the first time.

Person with Lyme disease
Lyme disease is often wrongly diagnosed
The caterpillars strip oak trees of their leaves but are also toxic to people. Their minute hairs cause severe skin irritation, allergic reaction and, if breathed in, can be life threatening.

While exposure to most domestic pests causes skin irritation, some can cause serious illnesses.

The tick can harbour nasty bacteria. It's an arachnid, whose eight legs grip the skin as its head burrows beneath to drink many times its own weight in blood. It can carry Lyme disease, a bacterial infection which can attack the skin, heart and nervous system. The early symptoms can be similar to severe flu and often it's wrongly diagnosed.

Wendy Fox suffered swelling to the brain and spinal cord and was paralysed from the waist down for a time after contracting Lyme disease. She has undergone years of treatment and is now blind in her left eye and with only 15% vision in her right.

Official figures on tick numbers aren't available yet, but the authorities are sufficiently worried to be doing a count. Another factor is the increase in urban wildlife, especially deer, who are thought to transport the pests into gardens and from there, into our homes.

What can we do to fight this spreading menace? Experts say knowledge is the best defence when it comes to pests. So these gory details might just come in useful.

Goodnight, and sleep tight.

Costing The Earth is broadcast at 2100 BST on Thursday 20 September on BBC Radio 4, repeated 1500 BST on Friday 21 September.

A selection of your comments appears below.

I have a pacemaker having contracted Lyme disease and ended up with serious heart arrythmia and block - leading to several cardiac arrests. My GP refused to accept that I had contracted Lyme, but my cardiologist was more receptive. A simple course of anti-biotics would have prevented my heart disease, but as this goes aganist current NHS practice I have to live with the expectation that the effects of the disease will progressively get worse.
Alan Jones, Lee on the Solent, Hants, UK

We should work towards Natural Pest Controls. By introducing natural Predators. Especially in the case of mosquitoes. e.g. Dragonflies, damsel flies, bats and other creatures that eat their share of insects.
Particia Downey, Hampton Bays, NY, USA

I lived on a farm in Burgenland (south eastern Austria) where I contracted Lyme Disease before being aware of the danger of ticks. That area has a major public health campaign for people to be immunised against tick bites. Whilst there is no immunisation against Lyme Disease (you need to treat it with antibiotics), there is against the very serious disease Frühsommer-Meningoenzephalitis (a kind of tick-borne encephalitis) which is what I suspect Wendy Fox may have suffered along with her Lyme Disease. In my opinion we should make awareness and availability of this vaccination a much higher priority in England as the ticks increase.
FormerFarmer, London UK

Moths get a really bad press as it is..now this just adds to the media's perception of moths as being not only horrible (they eat your clothes and they flutter around your head) but Now DANGEROUS ! The majority of moth larva are harmless. Through warmer winters and loss of habitat many moths are declining in Britain. Please, moths need positive press. Their livelyhood depends on people like you Tom Heap.
Donna Atherton, St.Helens

This year we have been over run in our home with mosquitoes, My wife was bitten 14 times on her leg, I have never ever seen anything like it in the UK before how do you go about stopping these thing getting in to your home. We live in a new house that has vents into the bathroon and trickle vents in the windows so its very easy for them to get into your home.
John, Manchester

We had an infestation of Bed Bugs 2 years ago, we think they were picked up at a cheap well know hotel chain. I started being bitten in the January and it went on til May, when I finally did the job myself. I thought we had a flea infestation as I owned 5 cats, after the 3rd go of clearing 'fleas' the cats wouldn't come near me! Finally realised in the April what they were and did as advised on the internet, I ended up calling in Pest control from the council who advised me wrongly and didn't get rid of them all. In the end I spent over £300 on buying a new bed, bedclothes, pest control both fleas and bedbugs. I lost sleep through being bitten. Although, my husband seemed never to be bitten or if he was he didn't react!
Adele Cox, Hounslow

Last year, on Corsica, I was badly attacked by the Oak Processionary Moth. Severe stinging all over my arms and torso which lasted for three weeks. Given that I was wearing a largish shirt with the cuffs buttoned up and the neck closed, this was disconcerting. I have to go back there, to the same forest (Foret d'Aitone) next Tuesday, I am not too happy.
Anne Leonard, London, UK

Oh come on, is it really this bad? If an Australian saw this article they'd laugh their head off.
Jonathan Barnes, Oldham

I guess letting the dog sleep on my bed doesn't help...?
K-doh, Mannheim, Germany

Dont let the bedbugs bite.
Paul, bradford


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