Throughout my early childhood I was tucked into bed with a gentle admonition: “Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Not that my parents or I had ever seen a bedbug or known anyone bitten by one.
But these days this old saying has resonance for many more people than in years past, including those who sleep in expensive homes and four-star hotels. Last month, a family living in a US$3 million private house in Brooklyn, New York, discarded rooms’ worth of furniture, the cushions carefully slashed and notes attached saying the pieces had bedbugs and were not safe to take.
Had this been the case 40-odd years ago, when I became a New York homeowner, I might have had a hard time furnishing my rooms; most were decorated with foundlings, including cushioned chairs. In those days, street scavengers like me had little reason to worry about bedbugs.
But the bedbug problem has become so widespread in 21st-century America that the Journal of the American Medical Association published a clinical review in April, Bed Bugs and Clinical Consequences of Their Bites, by Jerome Goddard, a medical entomologist at Mississippi State University, and Richard deShazo, an allergist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
A GROWING PROBLEM
Although this blood-sucking parasite has been around for thousands of years, it was mainly associated with impoverished dwellings and fleabag hotels. Now, as the authors pointed out, “international travel, immigration, changes in pest control practices, and insecticide resistance” have ganged up to create “a resurgence in developed countries,” including the US.
“Bed bug infestations have been reported increasingly in homes, apartments, hotel rooms, hospitals and dormitories in the US since 1980,” they wrote. Reported infestations in San Francisco doubled from 2004 to 2006; telephone complaints in Toronto rose 100 percent in six months during 2002; and the number of bedbug samples sent to authorities in Australia was 400 percent higher from 2001 to 2004, compared with the previous three years.
The critters can move easily from apartment to apartment through cracks in walls and floors. In the last fiscal year in New York City, a densely populated international destination with many people living in multifamily dwellings, bedbug complaints to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development rose to 8,840, nearly 2,000 more than in the previous fiscal year. And chances are most residents of infested households, especially those in single-family dwellings, co-ops and condominiums, never complained to this agency.
There is some good news about bedbugs. The journal authors reported that although the insects have been blamed for transmitting more than 40 human diseases, “there is little evidence that such transmission has ever occurred.”
The bad news is that even if bedbugs don’t spread hepatitis or AIDS, they can engender feelings of shame and disgust, and they are difficult and often costly to eliminate.
KNOW THE ENEMY
Adult bedbugs are easy to see, but only if you look at the right time — during the night on or near a human target. They do most of their feeding around 4am.
The insects resemble ticks. Before a blood meal they are about 1cm long, reddish brown, with a long nose tucked under a pyramid-shaped head and chest. After feeding, they may grow to more than 1.3cm. But you are more likely to see their remains in the morning: tiny black specks of excrement or perhaps a blood stain on the sheet if the sleeper happened to land on a well-fed bug.