How goes the bed bug battle in these parts?

Not so well, if the only thing you're listening to are media reports of the annual study released this spring by Terminix, which lists Cincinnati as the second most-bedbug-infested city in the U.S. (having been number four in 2010), behind perennial leader New York City.

But Cincinnati health officials take a dubious view of the study and insist Cincinnati is no better or worse than any urban area. They say such studies don't prove much, except what we already know: Bed bugs, a part of life in the third world, have made a comeback in the developed world.

"Studies from pest control companies aren't really based on any kind of science," says Rocky Merz, public information officer for the Cincinnati Health Department. "Reporting of these surveys can drive me nuts, since we are making progress."

The Terminix study is based predominately on the number of calls it receives from customers, supplemented by anecdotal observation from its employees.

Merz says he knows of no scientific study that ranks cities according to bed bug infestations. He says what we do know is this: "Any major urban area that has a lot of people coming and going is going to have bed bug problems. The reason why they spread so much doesn't really have anything to do with a city or its characteristics."

In fact, Merz says it's a good thing that a lot of people in Greater Cincinnati are calling pest control companies. In an ironic way, Cincinnati gets associated with bed bugs simply because the city has been so proactive on the front lines in the bug battle for almost five years now.

Long before bed bugs became the media's latest man-against-critter epic struggle, city health officials realized the bugs were making a comeback. In 2007, the Cincinnati Joint Bed Bug Task Force was formed to develop a strategic plan involving city, county and state officials. The task force was the first such effort in the nation, now considered as a model bed bug counter-insurgency strategy.

NOT DIY

Part of the plan is to raise awareness of bed bugs by encouraging people to call licensed operators, to be aware of scam artists and to avoid a do-it-yourself approach.

"The fact that more people in Cincinnati are calling licensed pest control operators to deal with the problem, as opposed to going to the hardware store and dealing with it themselves, is actually a very encouraging sign that we are ahead of the curve," Merz says. "It doesn't at all mean the problem is any worse here. It means we have done a better job educating people about what they have to do."

Those in the bed bug trenches confirm the critters have been on the march the last 10 years, after being practically nonexistent in America for decades.

"We used to get just a handful of calls a year," says Kurt Scherzinger, sales manager at ScherZinger Pest Control, a fourth generation-run Cincinnati company. "Last year, we were close to 500 calls and on pace to beat that this year."

Scherzinger confirms what Merz says: Callers now seem more bed-bug-aware.

"At first we were finding heavier infestations because people didn't know what was biting them," he says. "Now they are identifying them and quickly getting help. Because of that we find more lower levels of infestations, which we can take care of quickly."

CARRIED ON PETS, LUGGAGE

The common reddish-brown, oval and wingless bed bug (Cimex lectularius) feeds on the blood of mammals. The bugs and their eggs get carried into homes on pets, clothing, luggage or book bags. They like beds because, well, that's where their food source is for eight hours a day.

Why the resurgence? Speculation centers on the increased mobility of the world's population, along with the fact that some chemicals used to fight them have been banned as health hazards. There is some evidence the critters have developed partial immunity to insecticides.

Health officials say it's almost impossible to get rid of the bugs without professional help. Unfortunately, that can be an expensive proposition, since a serious infestation can require several treatments totaling $800 or more.

"The pesticides that work on them require contact kill. You have to hit the bed bug itself," Scherzinger says. "You have to find the larvae and hit them as they are hatching. That requires multiple visits."

TREATMENT OPTIONS

The Bed Bug Task Force has been lobbying the Federal EPA to allow exterminators to use propoxur, highly toxic to the bugs. The EPA has been reluctant to approve the pesticide for indoor use because of potential toxicity to children. Experts say the chemical can work in just one or two treatments, which can save a consumer significant money.

You can fry 'em. ScherZinger, and others companies, offer an alternative treatment that involves putting heaters in a home, raising the temperature to over 125 degrees and effectively baking the bugs (ScherZinger calls its process "heatagation"). It's more expensive then spray methods, but is 95 percent effective with one treatment.

Last spring, a Carthage home caught fire using the heater method when carpet was ignited. Scherzinger says most companies prefer using electric heaters, which are safer that the open-flame propane heat used in that case.

Merz says the health department also fights the bed bug stigma that has associated the pest with lower-income folks who may live in less sanitary conditions. But officials say bed bugs do not favor a socio-economic class.

"We treat everything from a Section 8 apartment to a multi-million dollar home, and we do that range every week," Scherzinger says.

It's simply a case that poorer people often can't afford professional pest control and may be at the mercy of landlords who won't spring for treatment, or can't afford it either.

Because of cutbacks, the Health Department does not have money to undertake residential bed bug inspections, which could lead to ordering landlords to take care of a problem.

The good news is bed bugs do not carry diseases. Repeated bites can lead to infections and aggravate other health problems, but they don't spread any blood-borne pathogens.

And Scherzinger points out, in sheer dollar damage, termites are a far bigger issue for homeowners in this area. But he understands bed bugs hit you differently.

"Termites are eating your investment. Bed bugs are eating you," he says. "They can take quite a mental toll. They are biting you in your place of comfort "” in your bed or couch." â–