According to the clustermap, we have a number of readers in Australia. And in neighboring Aotearoa/New Zealand too–in fact, I’m a bit worried about New Zealand–a few more of those red dots on the clustermap, and the island is going to disappear from the map like the much smaller island group of Hawai’i has, under the weight of too many dots. I have a hunch (based on stuff I’ve found on the internet) that bed bugs hit Sydney and were being talked about there well before anyone was saying anything in the press about them in New York City.

I have the same hunch about Toronto and Vancouver. In 2003, when NYC claimed to have 16 bed bug violations (as per this 2005 NYTimes article) and the local and national press was still reporting bed bugs as a bizarre anomaly suffered by mattress-foraging Greenpoint hipsters, , the Canadian media outlets were writing much more about bed bugs. More to the point, Toronto was already surveying the incidence of bed bug infestations, of which PCOs treated 847 that year in that city; a whopping 70% were in single-family dwellings. (The study notes that Toronto Public Health, in contrast, had only 46 complaints by comparison: this is why I keep insisting that NYC is likely to have many more than the recorded number of complaints filed to 311.)

The US CDC published the Toronto study on their website, but to my knowledge no similar survey of the incidence of bed bugs as reported by PCOs in a US city in one year has been undertaken. But if this were done now in NYC, as I argue it should be, Mayor Bloomberg would have to admit we have a very serious bed bug problem here, indeed. (Denial ain’t just a river in Africa.)

As far as Australia goes, This article from The Age, an esteemed Australian news outlet, speculates about the origins of the Aussie bed bug epidemic, and dates it to the 2000 Sydney Olympic games, when people from all over the world descended on Sydney. The article states that

. . . Australia is in the grips of a bedbug resurgence. There was a 5000 per cent increase in the treatment of bedbugs between 2000 and 2005 – with Victoria one of the worst affected states, according to Westmead Hospital scientist Stephen Doggett.

I do find the Sydney Olympics theory (which I’ve also seen elsewhere) slightly less offensive than the “immigrants brought bed bugs to Astoria” theory of the origins of NYC’s bed bugs. It’s more probable, to me: Foreign tourists from countries where bed bugs were, at the time, more common, visiting hotels which are later visited by Australian business people and domestic travelers = bed bugs! The Olympics theory is even more probable if the rise in Australian bed bugs spiked in a way NYC’s and Toronto’s bed bug cases didn’t. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

Stephen Doggett is the fabulous bed bug scientist who gave us permission to post his Bed Bug Life Cycle, which allows us to see all stages of the bed bug life cycle side by side. He’s also the principle author or the Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bug Infestations in Australia (June 2005), which can be downloaded here. Anyway, there’s a point to all that digressing, besides expressing our gratitude to Stephen Doggett once again, which is that the fact that the Australian Environmental Pest Managers Association has had time to build up a Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bug Infestations which is now almost two years old, reinforces my view that they were slightly ahead of us in suffering the bites. (Again, possibly because they had a spike, brought on by this Olympic influx, whereas we in NYC have had a slower arc?)

In this interesting article by Doggett, (clicking there will get you a PDF —>) “Bed bugs: the Unwanted Guest” from a 2006 edition of Executive Housekeeper (for those in the Australian hospitality industry), the author claims that from 1999-2006 the US has suffered a “ten-fold increase” in bed bugs, while in Australia there’s a 1000% rise in infestations treated from 2001-2006. (This number really conflicts with the 5000% increase also citing Doggett as a source, but I suspect it relates to the context from which the figures emerged.) Since statistics are tied to years when data was taken, it’s impossible to settle the US vs. Australia bedbug-chronology question based on this. (By the way, you can read other articles by Doggett here.)

What’s being done to stop bed bugs in Australia, besides the sharing of best practices? Australia is a favorite destination of young travelers (both native and international), who often stay in the country’s extensive assortment of backpacker hostels. This article, from the Sydney Morning Herald, details a new law passed in the city to protect those who stay in backpackers hostels:

The Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, has a plan to stop bed bugs biting Australia’s most lucrative tourists: backpackers. Under the plan, all new hostels will have to provide washed mattress protectors and pillow covers to reduce the extent of bug infestations. The rules will make every hostel use dense foam in its beds “designed to eliminate potential harbourage of vermin including bed bugs” while providing coverings for mattresses and pillows, washed after each backpacker.

I do hope those are sealed, not just washable, mattress and pillow protectors. (In fact, I am hoping they’re washed on the mattress, since removing them seems like a dangerous thing to do, bedbug-wise.)

The City of Sydney has no power to apply the rules to existing hostels, as they are applied during the development approval process in the conditions attached to a hostel’s consent.

Not only do the laws not apply to existing hostels, as one hostel association spokesperson pointed out, many hostels are operating illegally, and they also obviously won’t have the rule enforced. It’s a start though, and budget travelers who are aware of bed bugs and the laws and which hostels are covered can vote with their feet.

Besides adding mattress covers and using foam mattresses (I’d love to see documentation on what those do):

The rules . . . ban triple bunks and discourage carpets, also to cut down on the spread of bed bugs.

Last year the Herald reported council findings that almost eight out of 10 eastern [Sydney] suburbs backpacker hostels had infestations.

The bottom line is that some things can only be legislated so far; mattress pads rip and will need to be checked and kept in good repair or replaced. (As an aside, I visited a YMCA retreat center that had cheap vinyl covers on the beds which were full of rips, and therefore pointless.) For this to be helpful, hostel managers need to care. (And what about hotels? Some do have zippered covers. They all should, and they should be of the sturdiest type, and checked often. Even the best-made ones can get torn.)

The article from Executive Housekeeping had one other tidbit I forgot to mention. (This is a post of asides, but there’s just so much in these sources and I want to get it all in.) In emphasizing the need for hotels to use experienced PCOs who know how to deal with bed bugs, Doggett mentions the case in one Sydney hospital where an employee residence was infested; a small infestation that would have cost AU$500 to treat, ended up costing AU$50,000, all because the infestation was handled poorly by an inexperienced PCO. I just thought that was a fascinating case study, but I bet it happens all the time, and I know similar things, on a smaller scale, have happened to many of you. College dorms are another prime example, since most news reports we get to see detailing dorms being treated (with the exception of Stanford) appear to be mismanaged, if the news reports are accurate.

I hope we can continue to record what’s being done to fight bed bugs in various places. And I hope some of our readers from down under will drop us a comment and say hello!

I almost said, “G’day,” but I know you were dreading it coming from me, as much as I dread, but await nevertheless, the “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” crap that gets trotted out by the end of 80% of media reports on bed bugs.

Down with bed bugs, and down with cliches, Dear Reader.

1 hopelessnomo' March 15, 2007 at 12:04 pm

Great stuff, Nobugs, a lot to chew on. I cannot understand why this city is so desperately behind in comparison with everyone else. How is this possible? Really.

On thing, though, if I may. The immigrant origins of bedbugs is the most consistently dispiriting theory around, and because no one is sure, it is regularly included in articles much like the dreaded sleep tight.

The Olympic theory only sounds less offensive; it still locates the original sin with “[f]oreign tourists from countries where bedbugs are more common” as you put it. Well, I come from a Third World country, and I have to say, bedbugs are now more common in the United States. (My family doesn’t understand what happened to me. They can’t fathom why pesticides didn’t work, why I got them, etc. etc. They certainly have nothing but mystified silence in the face of my abandoning all my belongings and moving away like a refugee.)

Great sporting events happen every few years like clockwork. Different cities. World Cup? Travel happens all the time. Backpacking is older than you and me.

I remember someone posting a comment on Caitlin’s blog, I think, where he described fighting bedbugs in NYC SRO housing since 1999.

Something happened in the last two decades. I doubt it was someone’s “developing world” downstairs tenants who started it all.

Sorry if I sound like I’m in a bad mood. :/

2 nobugsonme March 15, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Hi Nomo,

No need to apologize! I share your concerns, though it may not have been apparent from the post, which I regret.

Actually, one of the digressions I edited out of the post (would you believe I actually edited something out of it? It was longer before?!?) was about how much the immigrant theory offends me (which I’ve blogged about lots before), and how close the Olympic one is to it. I should have been clearer about that.

I have just corrected the post to say I find the Olympic theory _slightly_ less offensive, and also to say that Australian theory is that bed bugs came via foreign tourists who came from countries where bed bugs _were_ more common _at the time_. I make that correction because you are right, bed bugs are now very common in the US (and Australia), though I don’t know that they’re less common in any particular country. But at the time, they were not common. Even though there were bed bugs in the US in 1999, they were very uncommon.

You’re absolutely right that the convergence of people is nothing new and not a good explanation, except I got the impression that there was a real spike after the Olympics, a spike which begs some kind of explanation (and which I don’t think is mirrored in NYC, which seems to have seen a more gradual rise). More data is needed. (And I’d love to hear about other cities with spikes after recent World Cups, Olympics, and other convergences.)

There have always been some bed bugs in the US, even before 1999, and in other developed countries as well– entomologists have led me to believe this. But not so many. From what I gather, bed bugs are rising all over the world.

We’re told that routine baseboard roach spraying kept them away, here, until the early 1990’s, when PCOs started using gel baits, and baseboard spraying became less common. That gave bed bugs about 10 years to come back, rather than the 30 that elapsed since DDT was outlawed.

3 hopelessnomo' March 15, 2007 at 1:47 pm

Thanks, Nobugs, you are the greatest.

It’s a fascinating subject.

Someone has to be there collecting data in order to notice spikes and other important trends. We don’t have institutions here even paying the right kind of attention.

4 nobugsonme March 15, 2007 at 2:03 pm

No, Nomo, YOU are the greatest! You and all the other helpful bedbuggers.

Yes– we need a study like the one in Toronto, done in NYC. I am a broken record on this, alas. Pest Away tells the Village Voice they have 85 legit calls and 15 false alarms a day (20,100 bed bug cases in 12 months without any increases over time), but the city insists that only 311 calls count as bed bug reports. It IS the ostrich syndrome: if I ignore it it will go away.

Last November, I referred to someone else’s blog which alleged that the VIP couch at Fox was infested with bed bugs. (They were media professionals, and after I mentioned their report, they came on and confirmed it.)

Until the wood benches of city hall, and every posh co-op on the Upper East Side, every coat check at the Met, and every VIP couch in every news studio is infested, we may not see much action.

And forget national attention: people still want to see this as a NYC problem. (Yes, I am in NYC, but plenty of folks here are in other cities.)

People who stumble across this blog who aren’t bedbuggers think we’re crazy. As nutty as the nuttiest tinhat conspiracy theorists.
And I don’t mean crazy-from-itching-crazy, or crazy-my-stuff-is-in-ziplocs-crazy (both valid); I mean crazy-overreacting-crazy.

Bedbug-free visitor, we’re a bunch of canaries and Cassandras, your complimentary early bed bug warning system.

Are you listening???

5 hopelessnomo March 21, 2007 at 3:10 pm

Frank has written an amazing article about this subject. He explores current theories of the resurgence of bedbugs in depth and does a good job on and indeed almost knocks out the immigrant theory. (Not that this should necessarily be his project, but it’s probably not completely knocked out yet, given the way prejudice works–partly because illegal immigration numbers seem not to have been accounted for, unreliable and politicized as those statistics may be–but it’s definitely on the floor gasping.) He is particularly persuasive in looking at the cancellation of pesticides as a likely candidate.

Excellent read, and people may want to look at his other interesting and exhaustively researched posts as well. Good stuff.

6 deb March 21, 2007 at 9:07 pm

Didn’t Vancouver BC win the bid to host the next Winter Olympics?? Well, there is going to be hell to pay if they can’t get their explosive bed bug epidemic under control….The denial of City governments has “fed the spread”…I hope that Vancouver does everything they can to find a solid kill solution, otherwise, can you imagine the spread of bed bugs they will cause !!!

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