Sleeping with the enemy: Bed bugs a painful nightmare

It had been a sleepless, living nightmare.

For mStar editor Zainal Azhar Mohamed, it was a year-long battle with bed bugs that ended with him "surrendering" and moving his family out of the rented home.

He believes the ordeal began after his travels in Vietnam last year.

"I think there were bed bugs at the hotel. I got itchy bites while I was there," he recalls.

He went to three doctors. They told him that it could be mosquito bites or an allergic reaction. They gave him medication that stopped the itchiness. Yet, he kept getting bitten.


Photo: The Star/ANN

"It was only around May last year when my part-time Indonesian maid noticed that there was a musty smell - a tell-tale sign of the presence of bed bugs," he says.

Zainal Azhar checked his bed and noticed black marks on his mattress, a sign of bed bug fecal matter.

He recalls feeling helpless after having "tried everything" and failed.

"All the sprays and pesticides were ineffective. I mixed Clorox with hot water and sprayed it all over my house, I used natural remedies such as soursop leaves and soursop fruits, but it all did not work."

"I would also mop, clean and vacuum every day. I tried everything," he says.

His children suffered, too. "My babies kept crying at night from the bites."

"Even I could not sleep. And when I did fall asleep, I would have nightmares about them," he says.

Zainal Azhar says the infestation was so severe that he could see the bed bugs in the crevices of the wall sockets in the room. He called a pest control company, which quoted him RM1,200 (S$380) for one room but could not guarantee that they will be exterminated.

"I was told that they can guarantee results for mosquito, ant and rat infestations but not for bed bugs," he says.

After months of sleepless nights, Zainal Azhar made the decision to move out.

"I threw away all the beds and bought new ones. I sent all my clothes and carpets to the laundromat to get washed in hot water," he says.

Zainal Azhar's younger brother Zainal Abidin is another victim.

"When I moved into my rented room, I realised that I started getting really itchy bites," Zainal Abidin says.

It dawned on Zainal Abidin that he might have the same infestation as his brother.

"Sure enough, when I had a closer look, I found bed bugs on the mattress and in the grout between the tiled floor."

Zainal Abidin and his housemates swung to action. They filled the grout with concrete, got rid of all the mattresses, and washed all the carpets and curtains.

"Thankfully, it seems to have worked."


Photo: The Star/ANN

Star Media Group digital content manager Lim Cheng Hoe says his agony began when he started sleeping on a futon on the floor to help ease his backache.

He started getting itchy welts and spotted bugs that looked like "watermelon seeds".

"I would go to bed about midnight and two hours later, wake up itchy," he says. "Then it was search and destroy. I had to pick them off one by one otherwise I wouldn't get any sleep."

It got to a point where he dreaded going to bed.

"Over-the-counter pest killers won't get rid of bed bugs. I Googled home remedies; but they tell you that salt, baking soda and whatnot doesn't work," he says.

He even tried using a steam iron to kill the bugs, plotting a "scalding death" for them. "But the nozzle wasn't really suitable for the job." Using bed bug sprays was another exercise in futility.

"They still feasted on me, night after night," he says.

He ended up "sterilising the bed" by emptying a few bottles of bed bug sprays on the bed frame and mattress.

Luckily, for the past three months, Lim says he has "been off the menu" for the bed bugs.

For copywriter Chan Ren Cheian, some of the bites became infected.

"Some of it became so swollen and full of pus. It was so bad that it was throbbing with pain. The doctor had to prick it to dig all the pus out," said Chan.

At the peak of the infestation in 2015, Chan says he had around 30 bites all over his body.

"The itch really drives you crazy."

Photo: The Star/ANN

Chan says that the thought of getting bitten by the bed bugs made him paranoid.

"I could not sleep for months. I would wake up in the middle of the night to inspect my body for new bites," he says.

Chan sprayed his room with insect spray and threw his mattress away. The problem went away for a few months but it recently came back; luckily, it was not as bad as before.

Another victim, L. Sasha, says she came to know of the problem after sleeping on an old bed in a rented room.

"I had trouble sleeping. I felt things moving on my bed but I didn't feel any bites," she says.

When she inspected her bed, she says she saw about 20 bed bugs at one corner, "It was so gross!"

She disposed of the mattress but the problem did not end there despite her vacumming every day and buying bed bug pesticide.

Sasha says she could not stop thinking about it and became obsessed with checking her room for the pesky bugs.

"Whenever I felt something move on my bed, I would get up to check. I would wake up and check my bed every two hours, I would not sleep," she says.

"I even vacuumed my room in the middle of the night. It was just horrible."

Sasha said that she would also observe the floor. "Whenever I see a black speck, I would panic. Sometimes, it would just be a speck of dirt," she says, adding that this took a toll on her mentally.

"I found that even though I did not get any bites, they were still feeding from me. Because when I kill them, there would be blood. It was creepy," she said.

After months of suffering, Sasha finally decided to move out. She washed all her clothes in hot water and hung them in the sun.

"I do not want the bed bugs to follow me to my new place."


UNWANTED GUESTS

It is a five-star hotel. A few years ago, they received "unwanted guests".

It was also the worst case of bed bugs he had ever encountered as a pest control operator.

Pest Control Association of Malaysia president Tajudin Abd Kadir recounts how his company had to treat a room in the hotel three times before all the bugs were eradicated.

"The infestation level in the room was very high.

"There was a big colony of bed bugs and they were even in the carpet. We had to conduct two types of treatments to eliminate the bugs," he recalls of the hotel, located in the east coast.

His company, he says, has seen a five to 10 per cent increase in cases.

Tajudin says the association, which represents over 200 pest control operators, has also been encountering "stronger" bugs.

"It's definitely more difficult to get rid of them now. They don't die immediately.

"Our last resort is to fumigate a space for 24 hours but not all industry players can do this as they require a licence from the authorities," he explains.

Cases affecting hotel rooms can be quite severe because if one room is affected, all adjoining rooms will also have to be closed and treated, says Rentokil Initial technical director Juliana Soo.

One of the most unique cases dealt by the company involved a client whose legs were severely bitten by bed bugs at his home in Kuala Lumpur.

He couldn't sense it because he was paralysed from waist down, she says.

"Upon checking, we found that his mattress and wheelchair were both infested but we couldn't throw them away. (The man could not afford to buy new ones.)

They later found out that the source of the infestation was from a neighbour who frequently visited the man. The company checked the neighbour's house and found bed bugs there.

Photo: The Star/ANN

The fact that a five-star hotel can be infested with bed bugs shows that cleanliness has little to do with the problem.

"The bug just needs to be brought in by a host," says Dr Abdul Hafiz Ab Majid, a senior lecturer from Universiti Sains Malaysia's School of Biological Sciences.

The urban and molecular entomologist also believes the bugs started becoming more resilient about 10 years ago, noting that genetic changes take a long time to develop.

But while they have become tougher, Dr Abdul Hafiz's studies found that these insects have an odd trait - they are fussy about their food, namely human blood.

"They prefer to feed on human blood at specifically 37°C. In my lab, the bugs are fed with artificial feeding devices using blood which has to be maintained at that temperature.

"If it is 36° or 38°, they won't go for it," he says.

But the main challenge to rid these pests is the lack of knowledge among Malaysians about them.

Many Malaysians mistake bed bugs for small cockroaches and beetles.

"Their eggs - white, tiny specks, also resemble dandruff," Dr Abdul Hafiz says.

"We will need a combination of methods to control such pests if chemical treatment alone is not enough," he says, suggesting alternative methods like heat treatment, which involves increasing the temperature in a space to kill the bugs and its eggs.

Concurring about the low awareness among Malaysians, Tajudin laments that some Malaysians don't even know what bed bugs look like.

"Malaysia should consider having regulations to certify places that are bed bug-free buildings," he says.

Tajudin also suggests that awareness programmes on bed bug infestations be held, similar to those for dengue fever and leptospirosis to increase public awareness and prevent infestations.

Major bed bug infestations were reported in several countries, including a courtroom in Kentucky, United States which had to be shut down last month. Just days after that, the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom were reported to be "crawling with bed bugs" and a pest control team was sent there to take "urgent action".

In 2010, the Google office in New York was also found to be infested with the bugs.

Closer to home, a Singapore permanent resident, who took a bus from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore late last year, recounted on Facebook about her ordeal of being bitten by bed bugs.

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