Study: Bedbugs could play role in disease transmission

Anyone who has ever had a bedbug infestation knows full well what a nuisance the pests can be. Unlike ticks and mosquitoes, however, bedbugs are not known to spread disease, and they are generally not viewed as a major public health threat.

But a peer-reviewed study published Wednesday in a journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the pests could play a role in disease transmission. In a tiny sample of bedbugs, collected from patients living in crowded conditions in a poor neighborhood in Canada, researchers found the drug-resistant bacteria known as MRSA.

The researchers and doctors at a Vancouver, B.C., hospital tested three patients from the neighborhood who were infested with bedbugs. They collected five bedbugs and determined that the insects carried two types of drug-resistant bacteria. Three bedbugs from one patient contained methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and the two from the other patients each contained vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE).

MRSA has increasingly turned up in hospitals and in outbreaks outside health care settings.

"Even though this is a small study, it suggests that bedbugs may be playing a role in the transmission of MRSA in inner-city populations where bedbug infestations are a problem," said Marc Romney, one of the study's authors. Romney is medical director of infection prevention and control at St. Paul's Hospital, and a specialist in infectious diseases.

The study does not answer many key questions. It did not determine whether the bacteria were transmitted from the patient to the bugs or the other way around. Nor did it determine whether the bacteria were on the outside of each bug or living and growing inside it, which would suggest the possibility of biological transmission, researchers said.

But even if the bugs carry the bacteria on their exteriors, the finding is significant, Romney said, because bedbugs could spread the germ from person to person, especially in crowded settings.