The Daily Aztec (an independent student paper) reported yesterday [direct link dead as of 3/14, removed] on the bed bug situation at San Diego State University. Officials there say there are currently no known bed bug cases, though the article notes there have been bed bugs found on campus in recent months.
One place bed bugs were discovered: the “egg chairs” in the Counseling and Psychological Services office. (This makes sense: people with bed bugs are under a lot of stress, and liable to seek help!) Director of the center, Dr. Sandy Jorgensen-Funk:
“We immediately shut down the chairs,” Jorgensen-Funk said, “so that they weren’t used by students, as soon as we found this out.”
Jorgensen-Funk added that the chairs were then treated for a second time in November and again last month.
“We didn’t know what they were,” she said. “We just wanted to make sure that we weren’t exposing students to a problem.”
Whether any students were exposed to the problem before the treatments were conducted is not known at this time.
The existence of bed bugs in the egg chairs strongly suggests the existence of bed bugs elsewhere on campus.
Here’s why: the bed bugs did not spontaneously arise in the egg chairs. Someone who had been exposed to bed bugs sat in the chairs, and the bed bugs stayed there. They could have climbed off a person, or walked directly out of a person’s bag.
They may have come from a dorm. Or a student’s off-campus home. But either way, we have to consider that if the bed bugs hitchhiked to one location, they can (and probably did) go to others as well.
We do not know how many bed bugs were seen in the chair, but it is also possible that the bed bugs were not harboring in the chair but climbed up into it to bite the person. Rooms, structures, can be infested as easily as pieces of furniture. The actual harborage could have been a nearby desk, a crack in the wall, another chair.
It is highly likely that anyone who sat in the chairs was exposed to bed bugs, and may possibly have taken them to other places — classrooms, library, cafeterias, dorm rooms, off-campus housing, etc. Bed bugs are hitch-hikers.
However, although the presence of bed bugs in the egg chairs suggests bed bugs are somewhere else on campus, The Daily Aztec reports having heard several bed bug reports from various residences which were found to be “unsubstantiated after discussions with the Office of Housing Administration and Student Health Services.”
Benita Mann, manager of custodial and maintenance services for the OHA, said there hasn’t been any known bed bug problem in campus housing for some time.
“Several years ago we had a problem,” Mann said, “but those buildings have since been torn down.”
Yet those bed bugs did not spontaneously appear in the egg chairs. Whoever responded to the egg chair bed bug infestation must sure have been asking himself or herself “who brought those bed bugs in, and where else did bed bugs from the chairs end up?”
If students come to the on-campus health service suspecting bed bugs, the health service wants to see an actual insect sample before they take a bed bug complaint seriously:
Dr. Gregg Lichtenstein, medical director at SHS, said complaints of bed bug bites isn’t something SHS sees very often.
“It’s not anything regular,” Lichtenstein said. “We see people who come in with bites of various sorts on an occasional basis – and most of them are, frankly, flea bites.”
Lichtenstein said that student inquiries about bed bug bites are rare, and no one can actually recall seeing a bed bug being brought in to confirm a diagnosis.
While it is absolutely true that one cannot diagnose bed bugs based on skin reactions, it is also absolutely true that it is difficult — except in heavy infestations — to catch a bed bug.
Students simply cannot be expected to find, catch, and bring in a bed bug sample.
Instead, when bed bugs are suspected, the room should be inspected, either by a trained pest professional willing to spend a lot of time doing so, or perhaps by a bed bug sniffing dog.
Lichtenstein also misunderstands the health problems posed by bed bugs:
“Bed bugs are not vectors of disease. They may be annoying, but that’s about it.”
Yes, bed bugs are not known vectors of disease. But bed bugs are more than annoying. They can trouble students (who may have difficulty getting help, especially if evidence is not obvious). They can make people lose sleep and create stress. This in addition to skin reactions from bed bug bites which vary from nothing to severe. And in very, very few cases, people have had life-threatening allergic reactions to bed bug bites.
Not only do colleges need to react well to suspected bed bug infestations. Colleges also need to be proactive against bed bugs.
Here’s why: we are told that as many as 70% of the population may not react to bed bug bites (per Dr. Jerome Goddard the state medical entomologist with the Mississippi Department of Health in Jackson, Mississippi); this means many people may not suspect they have a bed bug problem until it is very far advanced — so far advanced as to be visually obvious, even in daytime.
And if your bed bug infestation has gotten to that point, bed bugs may have already spread beyond that particular room.
College officials need to understand that it is hard to see a bed bug or catch it in the act, since they generally feed in the wee small hours, and are designed to hide between meals in tight cracks, undetected.
They also need to understand that bed bugs are a problem no one should have to put up with — even if they are not yet known to spread disease.
Finally — and the article does not engage with this issue at all — college officials need to realize that bed bugs travel off-campus too.
Students exposed to bed bugs may bring bed bugs home from campus, causing their parents expensive problems of bed bug detection and treatment. And other students will just as surely bring bed bugs onto campus, from hotels or from home. Faculty and staff will likely do so too. Bed bugs are a pest of exposure, and no one is immune.
Since bed bugs have come back with such a vengeance in society at large, having bed bugs enter a college campus is inevitable. Being reactive is not enough, given the problems of quickly detecting bed bugs before they spread around. And college administrators who realize this, and are proactive, have a better chance of getting bed bugs under control.
Ultimately, I have a hunch that a good proactive and reactive bed bug program may seem expensive at first, but will save money in the long run, over other approaches.
To read more about how colleges are dealing with bed bugs on campus, see this post which considers the model of Texas A&M, which proactively uses bed bug sniffing dogs to detect bed bug problems before students do, and TempAir to treat bed bugs in one shot with thermal remediation.
Heat also features at the University of Florida, where mattresses and other infested items are heated in a makeshift oven, as part of bed bug treatment, according to an article from Channel 2 in Charleston. [dead link deleted as of 3/14]