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La Cucaracha

Almost everyone is familiar with the Spanish "La cucaracha" song, but what does "Cucaracha" actually mean?

“Crazy bug!” That’s what the Spanish "cucaracha" means. Why crazy? Because when these darkness-loving bugs are surprised by a light being turned on, they scamper away in a wild, crazy, zig-zag pattern! What sort of bugs are we talking about? The cockroach!

Some 4000 different species of cockroaches have been roaming the world for at least 300 million years. The German cockroach, Blattella germanica, is the number one pest in North America and commonly infests homes, squeezes through cracks, and feeds on almost everything- from human food to wood, from soap to glue.

Cockroaches live in places where food, water, and shelter are available. Hence, roaches are often found in the moist environment of kitchens and bathrooms. They can also swim and stay underwater for as long as 10 minutes. They will rest in one spot without moving for 18 hours a day and can go many hours without food. In fact, they only eat at night. And as for what they eat, they are omnivorous, meaning that they can and will eat anything, plant or animal. The more we learn about their diet, the more disgusting they seem, since they eat everything, including animal feces.

Cockroaches often come in contact with drains and sewers, where they can pick up bacteria and viruses from human excrement that can survive in the cockroach's digestive tract for months. They can carry bacteria such as salmonella, staphylococcus and streptococcus, and viruses such as polio. However, the extent to which they spread disease is controversial.

When it comes to asthma, however, they are a health hazard. Cockroach debris such as shed cuticles, eggs, saliva, and feces contain proteins, termed antigens, that trigger allergic reactions. Airborne antigens can trigger respiratory symptoms such as asthma. Asthma is on the increase globally, and recent studies show that children living in inner cities are especially at risk. Socio-economic factors such as access to education, health care, and medication may play a role, but the prevalence of asthma in these populations is most likely a consequence of poor housing conditions. The problem may be further exacerbated as parents, threatened by the crime on the streets, keep their children indoors.

Cockroaches, and the antigens they release, are certainly unwelcome guests. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has developed a polyclonal antibody home-test kit that detects cockroach antigens, which can then be removed with common household cleaners. This is especially important since the absence of cockroaches in a dwelling does not guarantee the absence of cockroach antigens. In fact, the antigens may persist up to five years after the elimination of cockroaches. Cockroaches are not only crazy, they can make you crazy.


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