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PARIS (Reuters) - Tiny, bloodthirsty and relentless, the insect pest that became a nightmare for millions of New Yorkers has found its way to Paris, spreading fear of an outbreak that could turn into the ultimate tourism-killer.
Bed bugs, known in French as "punaises de lit," or "bed drawing pins," were a rarity in France just three years ago, far less prevalent in homes than mice or cockroaches and well under the radar of public health officials. No longer.
An employee at the public health section of Paris' City Hall who asked not to be named said more than 600 places in the city have needed treating for bed bug infection so far this year -- a marked increase from 2009.
While the city is playing down the extent of the problem, rejecting the term "invasion," exterminators said bed bugs were spreading quickly throughout the French capital and had already appeared in other parts of the country.
"Let's say it started in 2007," said Reynald Boudet, owner of the Aurouze extermination shop in Paris. "Back then we had ten requests per year. Now it's more like a hundred ... We are getting more and more orders for (extermination) products from all over the country."
Travelers from the United States and Canada had probably acted as hosts for the tiny parasites, which lodge in fabric -- preferably beds -- and feed on human blood at night, he said.
The problem grabbed public attention when France Info, a radio news station, reported on Tuesday that several Parisian hotels had been infested. It said one threw out all of its carpets and furniture after guests complained.
Paris City Hall said it had been overwhelmed with calls.
A City Hall spokeswoman said she had no statistics available on bed bugs. She said they did not have priority status and only accounted for an "infinitesimal part" of public extermination visits.
Yet an outbreak in Paris could deter tourists from booking hotel rooms or renting apartments, potentially threatening an industry that brings in billions of dollars a year.
Bed bugs, about the size of a grain of rice and flat-shaped, have became a headache for thousands of New Yorkers since an unstoppable invasion left them with painfully itchy and unsightly red welts.
Notoriously tough to dislodge but not disease carriers, the bugs work their way into bedding or furniture upholstery where they can survive for a year without eating or put up with extreme temperatures as they wait for a host to come along.
Exterminators use powerful chemicals to rid apartments of the bugs, an invasive process that forces tenants to move out and deep-clean all their possessions.
The parasites are highly efficient at spreading in an urban environment such as Paris or New York, where they have invaded the seat of the United Nations, the offices of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and a Victoria's Secret lingerie store.
"They're worse than cockroaches because they suck blood," said Aurouze's Boudet. "All it takes to bring them home is to sleep over at a friend's place."
Editing by Catherine Bremer and Tim Pearce