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Kenyans Menaced by Nairobi Fly

January 26, 1998

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ A washerwoman hides her mottled face, a band leader nurses an ugly patch of blisters on his neck, and a small boy scratches his cheek raw.

The ``Nairobi fly″ got ’em.

The lurid orange-and-black beetle has captivated Kenyans. It’s making appearances on TV and in newspapers. Victims compare wounds and remedies. Others rehearse techniques for blowing the bug off their arms.

It doesn’t sting or bite, but when its ant-like body is crushed, potent toxins spill onto the skin causing itching, a burning sensation and swelling.

``Oh, it hurts. It’s so itchy,″ complained Douglas Kamau, 3, whose cheek was patched with scabs.

When the poison is smeared in the eye, the eye becomes swollen, red and oozy. Temporary blindness can occur.

The beetles _ both Paederus crebinpunctatis and Paederus sabaeus _ are always present in Kenya and much of the rest of the world. But this year, the population has exploded in the East African nation because of unusually heavy rains brought by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Elidy Wangui, concealing the swollen right side of her face, said she must have swatted a ``Nairobi fly″ while sleeping.

Band manager Kausher Hussain, visiting from India, said his musicians are afraid to leave their hotel room.

Previous outbreaks have been reported on every continent except North America, in countries including Uganda, India, Japan, Israel and Paraguay.

The beetles breed in wet, rotting leaves and soil. Rainfall 500 percent above normal that began in October has greatly lengthened the breeding season, causing the population to soar, said Health Ministry entomologist John Ouma.

``This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,″ he said.

The bugs have invaded houses, offices and schools in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya, especially parts of the Rift Valley and Central provinces.

Like most insects, the beetles are attracted by bright lights. When the lights are turned off, the beetles drop down _ and occasionally hit a person who naturally takes a swat at the tickling intruder.

In death, the bug retaliates _ releasing pederin, one of the most powerful animal toxins, which it produces to keep from being eaten.

Then, 12 to 24 hours later, the skin flushes red and victims complain of symptoms from tickling to severe burning, said Dr. Absai Kola, a dermatologist.

In another day or two, pinhead-sized blisters erupt, filled with a yellowish fluid. As the blisters burst, raw, red skin is exposed.

In a week or two, the damaged skin peels off and begins to heal. Secondary infections can occur, especially if the victim scratches the irritated skin.

The Health Ministry, in radio, TV and newspaper announcements, has advised Kenyans to avoid using lights at night, especially in bedrooms. Pesticides can be use to kill the insects.

If a beetle falls on the body, ``do not crush it, but blow or flick it off,″ the ministry warns.

The ministry advises people who squash a beetle on themselves by mistake to wash the area immediately with soap and water to dilute the poison, then apply petroleum jelly or an oily lotion to ease the pain.

But others say that will only spread the poison, causing greater irritation.

Koen Maes, head of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Kenya said a better treatment is to pop the blisters and swab the area with alcohol or iodine to dry up the poison.

Mosquito nets for beds can guard against a nighttime attack.

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