Harvard dorm treated for scabies–but what was it really? Also, bed bugs at Columbia?

by nobugsonme on October 26, 2007 · 7 comments

in bed bug bites, bed bug treatment, bed bugs, bed bugs in colleges, boston, dorms, entomologists, massachusetts, new york, usa

Ivy League gossip blog the IvyGate explained this week that the supposed scabies outbreak that forced everyone in the Pennypacker Harvard freshman dorm to be treated for scabies with a full-body pyrethrin cream application (not to mention making them all undergo the extensive laundering and calling-of-romantic-partners that condition requires), is now thought not to have been scabies at all. IvyGate shared a memo sent out to Pennypacker residents Wednesday which clarified the chain of events leading to the diagnosis and subsequent retraction:

Dear Pennypacker Resident:

After reading the Crimson opinion piece from October 22, 2007, “I’ve
Got an Itch”, it seems worthwhile to review where things stand after
the incidents of skin complaints two weekends ago at Pennypacker.

At that time, three individuals came to university health services
(UHS) with similar symptoms. After being evaluated by a physician at
After Hours Urgent Care, the possibility of scabies was considered.
Discussion with proctors at Pennypacker revealed that there were at
least 5 or 6 students at Pennypacker with itching skin and rash, though
only three of them wished to be examined.

Given the symptoms, also under consideration was the possibility of bed
bugs, though the skin findings were not classic for this diagnosis. A
scraping from the skin of one student was done to look for mites, but
these were not seen. It’s important to note the presence of mites on a
skin scraping absolutely confirms the diagnosis of scabies; if they are
absent, though, the diagnosis is not excluded. Frequently, the
diagnosis of scabies is difficult to make, and it takes several
examinations of a patient over time before other possibilities are
excluded. This is because the rash associated with scabies can be
fairly non-specific, and the “burrows” are often not seen.

But the three students’ rashes had cleared up within three days, leading an entomologist to speculate that scabies was not to blame:

Four days later, Dr. Michael Alpert, an entomologist from the Harvard School of
Public Health
came to Pennypacker and talked to three symptomatic
individuals and concluded that scabies was unlikely, given the rapid
clearing. He speculated that the causative bug could have been
mosquitoes, though he never saw the bites when they were present. The
physician who did see the bites, said that the appearance of the bites
was not consistent with mosquitoes, and that their locations on the skin
was more consistent with scabies. As is frequently the case with rashes,
the simple symptoms can lead to a variety of diagnosis, and it
is often difficult to tell, in the absence of definitive testing, which
one is correct.

This memo above to students was from Doctors Sohayla Gharib and Gregory Johnson of the Harvard University Health Service, who also had this to say,

If the diagnosis was not scabies, it is
possible that there was another insect involved, though it does not
appear to be bedbugs (because there are no ongoing symptoms and there
was no evidence for bed bugs when the pest control team evaluated the
dormitory), nor appear to be mosquitoes.
Whatever the ultimate source,
it is now eradicated from Pennypacker thanks to your response and

Let’s all hope that Pennypacker is itch-free for some time to come.

Get the full story from IvyGate.

Also, here’s a Columbia University gossip blog, BWOG (put out by writers from the student magazine) alleging bed bugs are in Schapiro 12 (student housing at Columbia University):

According to Bwog,

Now that a few students have been bitten severely, Housing has finally admitted that there are bedbugs. Two rooms have been fumigated, one of them twice. Unfortunately, Housing still refuses to clean the hallway and carpet even though bedbugs can easily travel from one room to another. Housing, you’ve really let yourself go on this one…

1 Blue_Ox October 26, 2007 at 11:44 pm

This high end condo in NYC where units sell for over a million $ has them and is handing out pamphlets saying they have bedbug sniffing dogs.

(Editor’s note: thanks Blue_Ox! We have a story about that here.)

2 TemporarilyAnonymous October 27, 2007 at 10:06 pm

I went to Harvard. In the late 90s, I got scabies while living in a university dorm. The source of my mites was never determined. It’s still a mystery. I was single at the time. I hadn’t shared my bed or slept elsewhere for two months prior to the “rash.”

I was diagnosed at University Health Services. I informed the Dean of Students of my school. But back then, there were no dorm inspections. No one – not even me – thought they were necessary. I got a prescription for Elimite and instructions to wash my bedding in hot water. Less than half-a-day later, no more scabies. The problem was solved pretty easily and painlessly.

It’s interesting that school procedures seem to have changed. Coulda been the complaints from multiple students. But it’s funny how they take pains to avoid mentioning the B word. “insects” – excluding “mosquitoes.”

As for Columbia – three years ago, my friend worked as a internist at their health services. He knew about bedbugs – even back then – and had diagnosed their bites on students, employees, etc.

3 nobugsonme October 27, 2007 at 11:35 pm



Maybe a mild case of scabies might clear up quickly, despite what Alpert said. I am not sure how you could have had bed bugs in your dorm if they went away without treatment, but you could have been bitten outside the dorm (at a club or anywhere really) and that would explain a temporary rash.

Bed bugs only really started to be seen around 1999, so I am not surprised college officials did not go there.

4 TemporarilyAnonymous October 28, 2007 at 12:53 am

There might be a new super-strain of scabies mite out there. I understood that Elimite knocks out most cases of scabies after one treatment. I first noticed itching about three weeks before diagnosis/treatment. The last two weeks, the itching was crazy intense. But after applying that cream, I woke up the next morning with no itching. I’ll never forget how delicious and absolute that relief was.

Oh, and I guess I misread the statement from Harvard UHS. They’re not averse to spelling out “bedbugs” after all.

5 TemporarilyAnonymous October 28, 2007 at 12:56 am

And I’m just hypothesizing about the super-scabies there. I know nuthin’ about that stuff.

6 nobugsonme October 28, 2007 at 1:38 am

Apparently scabies can take two treatments to clear up. And then you’re also supposed to wash on hot/ dry on hot all bedding and clothing worn within a week, and we know some folks might not get that directive, meaning it might linger more.

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