The bedbug resurgence in the developed world. We know the story, don’t we?
Virtually eradicated. DDT. International travel. Baseboards. Yadda, yadda.
No. Not at all. Not yadda yadda.
Let’s consider the bedbug resurgence in one developed country.
In October of 1999 the BBC reported the “return of the bed bug” in the UK:
The bed bug is making its way back into domestic life throughout the UK.
The blood-sucking pest – commonly thought to have been eradicated at about the same time as Dickensian slums – is now being reported in increasing numbers of homes around the country.
Then in April 2000, a letter in the BMJ by microbiologists John Paul and Janice Bates: Is infestation with the common bedbug increasing? Dr. Paul and Dr. Bates were concerned about that possibility and noted the lack of bedbug awareness among doctors and the possible association with international travel:
From February to October 1999 specimens from four separate infestations were referred to [Brighton Public Health Laboratory Service]; this suggests that bedbugs are becoming more common.
Interestingly, in all four examples there was circumstantial evidence to suggest the transfer of bugs in luggage or furnishings.
There was an interesting reply by a retired public health physician, Dr. JK Anand, suggesting that the doctors ask the Environmental Health Officers for their infestations data.
Infestations data? Environmental Health Officers? (Isn’t the internet wonderful?)
Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius L.) still abound in some areas of the UK. The annual report of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers states that in the year April 1985-April 1986, 7771 premises in England and Wales were treated, and in 1986-1987, 6179 premises were treated for bed bugs. The Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland reported 43 bed bug infestations in 1985 and 20 in 1986. In the tax year 1987-1988, Belfast EHOs conducted 188 bed bug treatments.
At first, and second, glance this is fairly bewildering information. 7,771 bedbug cases in England and Wales in 1985-1986? That number sounds high, doesn’t it? Fourteen years before the Paul and Bates letter. Remember, in 2000 they were worried by specimens submitted to a single lab from four separate infestations.
We need context in order to understand this information about bedbugs in the UK. How is this possible? A decade before the purported start of the resurgence — according to the BBC again, in April 2004, under the headline “Bedbugs bounce back from oblivion,” more or less marking a red dot on 1995:
Since 1995 there has been an unexpected increase in reports of infestation in Britain, the US and other developed countries.
Clearly the large incidence of infestations in 1986 was forgotten by the late nineties. Were the majority of those infestations controlled? If so, how? Like everything to do with bedbugs, a great deal of mystery must be tolerated.
But, and this is finally the reason for this post, we can now point you to an article that begins to suggest the missing context and how little we know about the bedbug resurgence in the UK and, by extension, in developed countries, an article from January 1990 published in New Scientist, a truly eye-opening piece written by Fiona King. (I’m not sure how we’ve missed this article; perhaps it has not been available online until very recently. In any case, I hope to interest you in its treasures.)
For one thing, a breakdown of the 1985-1986 statistics:
The Institute of Environmental Health Officers found that local authorities carried out 7771 treatments for bedbugs in [1985-6]. Just over a quarter of these were in the North West – Merseyside, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Cumbria – and 17 per cent were in Greater London. The Midlands and Northern Region – Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria – each accounted for one-tenth of the total, while the South West – Devon, Cornwall, Dorset – had the fewest treatments (0.3 per cent).
In Scotland the Royal Health Institute’s figures show that over half of the 41 treatments in 1987 were carried out in Edinburgh and Glasgow. This concentration of bedbugs in urban areas is also found in Northern Ireland, where in 1988 there were 186 treatments in Belfast compared with 7 in Londonderry and 2 in County Down.
About the data collection:
Hard facts about infestations are hard to come by. Information is usually based on the number of treatments carried out. In Britain, many companies dealing in pest control are unwilling to release statistics about which areas they have treated. The main source of information is the environmental health departments of local councils, but reporting is erratic and inspections irregular. Information about infestations is collected in different ways, and is often discontinuous because computerised databases were introduced at different times in different areas. It may also include data about other household pests such as cockroaches, ants or even mice, masking the problem of bedbugs.
And about the difficulties of inspections and the stigma of reporting an infestation:
Most environmental health departments are short of officers to carry out inspections. Usually a council becomes aware of an infestation only if someone complains – but people are often ashamed to admit that their homes are infested and they turn to the environmental health department only as a last resort when their own attempts to kill the bugs with household insecticides have failed. Many cases go undetected for years, until either the bites become unbearable or a relative or neighbour reports the problem.
There is much more. I highly recommend that you read it yourself.
The article is remarkable, among other reasons, for King’s writing about infestations in Africa and India and infestations in the UK virtually in the same breath, at one point comparing the number of bites that people living in “heavily infested premises” in North London and Natal could suffer. When she concludes that “we must find out what is the scale of the infestation” she is not writing about only one group of human beings on the earth.
But what about the United States you ask? Well, we should attempt to examine the history of infestations in the United States, a considerably more difficult project. No Environmental Health Officers tracking data, however imperfectly, here. Next time perhaps.
You may also be interested in the letters from New Scientist readers, here, here, and here. Also, don’t miss the interesting tidbit about Robert Usinger’s hemoglobin levels from feeding his bedbug colony from 1958 to 1964! Further recommended reading about bedbugs in the UK must, of course, include two articles by Clive Boase, both PDFs, which will load if you click here and here.