NEW YORK -- Bedbugs are spreading at an unprecedented rate in New York City, and officials on Wednesday announced the start of a plan to battle the infestation, including a public awareness campaign and a top entomologist to head the fight.
The bloodsucking pests, which do not spread disease but are known to cause great mental anguish with their persistent and fast-growing infestations, have rapidly multiplied throughout New York and many other U.S. cities in recent years.
Health officials and pest control specialists nationwide report surges in sightings, bites and complaints. In New York City, the pests -- whose bites leave itchy red welts -- have been discovered in theaters, clothing stores, office buildings, housing projects and posh apartments.
The stigma of having bedbugs and the elusive nature of the pests make it impossible to fully understand the problem, experts say.
But for the first time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration included a question about bedbugs on its community health survey in 2009, and revealed the finding to The Associated Press on Wednesday: more than 6 percent of New York City households said they had battled the pests in the last year.
The city fielded 537 complaints about the bugs in fiscal 2004. In fiscal 2009, there were nearly 11,000.
"This is happening globally, and I don't think anybody has figured out exactly why," said Daniel Kass, the city's deputy commissioner for environmental health. "So what we're left with is managing them and keeping them from spreading. They're going to be with us for some time."
Bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed and, despite their name, burrow into many more places than beds. They can slip into floor cracks, wall outlets, picture frames, lamps -- any tiny space.
People who have bedbugs often never see them. The most obvious signs are bites, blood on bedsheets and their waste, which looks like black pepper. They are known for being extremely difficult to eradicate, and can go a year without feeding.
Bedbugs were nearly dormant for decades, and the recent comeback has experts scratching their heads. Some attribute the resurgence to an increase in global travel and the prohibition of potent pesticides like DDT.
New York convened a government advisory board last year to study the problem and make recommendations.
The report said one major roadblock to stopping the bedbug spread is lack of knowledge about prevention and the patchy and sometimes erroneous information about treatment.
"If you have termites, you know how to deal with it. If you see a rat, you know who to call. This is confusing," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "The biggest issue is lack of clarity and not having any actual sense of what the next step is and where you go to get that."
Acting on the report's recommendations, New York City said Wednesday it was re-appropriating $500,000 of health department money to begin the first phase of a bedbug battle plan, which is mostly concentrated on information, outreach and the creation of a health department bedbug team.
Some of the money will go toward creating an online bedbug portal where New Yorkers can find information about avoiding the pests as well as how to treat their homes. The city already has a rat-information portal.
The city does have a few online bedbug videos and guides, but the report noted that they are not easily found and should be concentrated and presented as one interactive tool.
Far too many people are unaware they have the bugs, officials said, and end up spreading them by carrying them on their clothing or discarding personal items that have the bugs.
Travelers also need to learn to be more vigilant, the city says.
"Everyone has got to get used to the idea that they have got to check for them periodically," Kass said. "People who travel should look at the rooms they're staying in. They should check their clothing. There are good preventive measures."
Officials also said the city would adopt the report's recommendation of working to establish protocol for disposing of infested furniture and other personal items.