The human parasites collectively known as Cimex lectularius—bedbugs—may deliver bites that make the skin itch and may prove difficult to eradicate from the home, but at least patients who are victims of infestations can rest assured that these pests do not appear to carry disease.

This encouraging news, delivered in the midst of a worldwide increase in bedbug problems, comes from a review of 53 articles published over 28 years. Co-authors Jerome Goddard, PhD, and Richard deShazo, MD, of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Mississippi State University in Starkville, conclude that although bedbugs have been blamed for the transmission of more than 40 human diseases, little evidence exists that such transmissions ever occurred (JAMA. 2009;301:1358-1366). The investigators identified hepatitis B virus as the most likely disease to be carried by bedbugs based on the detection and persistence of hepatitis B surface antigen in the insects. However, the virus did not appear to replicate in the bedbugs, and the complete elimination of these pests from one region in Africa did not lower hepatitis B rates. An experiment using chimpanzees also failed to show that bedbugs could transmit the hepatitis B virus.

“To our knowledge, no study to date has demonstrated bedbug ‘vector competence’ (the ability to acquire, maintain, and transmit an infectious agent),” note the study’s authors.

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