The bed bug threat to travellers is growing worse as the mites become increasingly resistant to insecticides.
Experts believe a new strain that can withstand DDT has developed over the last couple of decades and poses a threat to holidaymakers in the US and closer to home.
“They have been bad for some time here in the US,” said Michael Potter, a professor of entomology – the study of insects and their relationship to humans – at the University of Kentucky. “In Europe and the UK it has been getting progressively worse.”
“It is becoming more difficult to kill them. The bugs are becoming incredibly resistant and we don’t have the potent, long-lasting products that were so effective years ago.
“People have also become less vigilant than they used to be. Back in the day, they knew to check beds when travelling or after people paid them a visit. Folks are so busy these days, bed bug prevention often takes a back seat to other pressing issues.”
There remains some debate on how the superbugs have spread. One theory is that it is due to the vast increase in the number of people travelling. Not only are people on the move but so are the insects which can be carried, inadvertently, in travellers’ luggage.
Even airline passengers are not immune. In October 2017 British Airways apologised to a Canadian family bitten by bed bugs on a flight from Vancouver to London. Last January a BA flight from Heathrow to Ghana was grounded after the crew refused to fly on an infested aircraft.
There are precautions which can be taken by holidaymakers. On arriving at a hotel it is advisable to check the bed thoroughly, lifting up each corner of the mattress, inspecting seams and the bed frame itself. The bugs are red and brown and around the size of a pearl. Their eggs are white and about as big as a mustard seed.
Suitcases should not be thrown onto the bed or floor, because the bugs can climb inside and become unwelcome holiday souvenirs. The insects care not for how much a tourist has paid for a hotel room.
In 2016 North American database the Bed Bug Registry reported complaints of bugs in some of New York’s most prestigious hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria.
Cases have been brought against the Hilton chain and Disneyland is being sued by a woman who said she was bitten by bugs at its hotel in Anaheim, California.
She is being represented by Brian Virag, a former criminal defence attorney, who has built up a flourishing practice in Encino, about 20 miles west of Los Angeles. His company, My Bed Bug Lawyer, works on a “no win no fee” basis, pocketing a share of the proceeds from successful litigation.
The business model has worked well for Virag and his clients for whom he has secured millions of dollars in damages. For example, in 2017 he persuaded a jury to award $3.5 million (£2.7m) to 16 current and former residents of one of Los Angeles’ largest apartment complexes.
Other clients include an underwear model who said her career was wrecked by the damage wrought by bed bugs after she stayed at a California hotel.
“Over the past eight years I have fixed my focus on bed bug exposure and it is getting worse – it is an epidemic,” he said. “Now one in five people have either been exposed to bed bugs or know somebody who has. Bed bugs are having a physical, emotional and financial impact.
“Physically it is manifesting itself in bites, itchiness and scratching. I have had countless cases of people have had an allergic reaction. Scratching has led to bleeding and then scarring.
“There has been some really really bad stuff, even bed bugs harbouring in people’s ears and laying eggs. Emotionally it has been nasty and in some cases humiliating. You have children going to school with marks all over their body and being ridiculed by other kids.
“They affect people who stay in the most expensive hotels and the cheapest hotels, in the most expensive apartments and the cheapest apartments. Bed bugs don’t discriminate.”