Bugger me, we’re all infested!

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Stephen L Doggett, director of Medical Entomology at Westmead Hospital Department of Medical Entomology, explains what facility managers can do to combat the current bed bug pandemic.

There is no denying that facilities managers have one of the most challenging of all jobs: this one position where a broad range of skills are a requisite to be effective into the 21st century. Included among the many disciplines where some knowledge is required is that of pest management. In the past, the main pests of concern for the facilities manager were cockroaches, rodents, termites, feral birds and ants. However, over the past 15 years, a new pest has emerged that has sent shivers through the entire pest management industry and every facilities manager who has had to deal with this insect.

This is a pest that is damaging reputations; its bloodsucking Dracula-like tendencies results in painful itchy lesions and even temporary to long-term mental scarring in some clients. Infestations of this insect in hotels has resulted in multimillion-dollar lawsuits, led to cost blowouts and reduced profits for those facilities infested. They have even threatened the careers of facility managers when the processes of eradication have not been adequately undertaken.

It is an insect no bigger than an apple seed and whose sole preference is for blood… human blood. Up until recently it was thought that this creature had largely disappeared and yet, since the start of the new millennium, it has returned with a vengeance, such that the world is now in the midst of a major pandemic… of bed bugs.

Bed bugs are insects, roughly one to five millimetres in size depending on the life stage (and degree of blood engorgement). As the name implies, they are most commonly found on mattresses and attack people while they are sleeping.

In the process of biting, bed bugs inject saliva, which often produces a clinical reaction. This may include redness with itchiness, to a more severe condition termed a ‘wheal’ that appears as a large coin-shaped red lesion and is intensely irritating, to even a severe, life-threatening anaphylactic response.

Fortunately, bed bugs do not transmit diseases; however, this is of little comfort to those who have been attacked by these bloodthirsty little vampires. Unfortunately, encounters with bed bugs are increasing. A survey of Australian professional pest managers in 2006 revealed that infestations had risen by an extraordinary 4500 percent since the start of the new millennium. Since that survey, infestations have continued apace worldwide. Sadly for the hospitality sector, the vast majority of these infestations have occurred within its industry.

Insecticide resistance

The main trigger for the bed bug resurgence has been insecticide resistance – those bugs out there today are extremely difficult to kill with currently available insecticides. As a result, control failures are all too common and ineffective bed bug control can lead to the infestation rapidly spreading, and for costs to escalate.

In one staff accommodation complex in Sydney with some 320 rooms, what should have cost $400 for the treatment of one infested room, eventually became $40,000 as the bugs quickly spread throughout the facility to encompass 20 percent of all rooms over a two-year period.

The failure in this case was due to two aspects: poor pest management by the pest controller, who had not been trained in proper bed bug control procedures, and poor process management by the facilities manager, who let the manner get out of hand.

Never employ the cheapest operator (a cheap quote is a sign of a lack of experience), and facility managers should never attempt to control an infestation themselves.

Eradication methods

So what are the best methods to eradicate bed bugs? I have been involved in the development of an industry standard called ‘A Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bug Infestations in Australia’. The aims of this code, available free of charge from www.bedbug.org.au, are to promote and educate on ‘best practice’ in the eradication of bed bug infestations.

If the method is not in the code, then it probably should not be trusted. Briefly, bed bug management involves the use of a non-chemical means of control, as well as the judicious use of insecticides, and control can be very difficult and time consuming. The same website also includes a list of pest managers who have received training in bed bug control.

One would think, then, it would be best to prevent bed bugs from coming into a facility in the first place. With current technologies this is simply not possible. Yet a great deal can be done to reduce the risk of bed bugs becoming established and developing into a major fiscal burden for your organisation. Broadly speaking there are four phases of a bed bug infestation:

  • introduction of the insect
  • establishment of the pest
  • growth of the infestation, and
  • spread of the insect.

Strategies can be implemented that can combat bed bugs in each of the four phases and these are discussed within the Code of Practice. Ultimately, no one strategy should be relied upon as bed bug risk reduction involves a multidisciplinary approach.

When it comes to bed bugs, most in the accommodation industry are reactive rather than proactive, and this is why so many of the court cases have resulted in favour of the guest, with most being settled out of court.

A management policy

Most importantly, an organisation should have a bed bug management policy as part of its risk management process. The policy should cover aspects such as training, documentation of bed bug activity, work health and safety, the eradication processes, and those aspects dealing with the reduction of bed bug risks.

To assist the hospitality industries and those that provide beds for others, I have developed a generic policy, ‘A Bed Bug Management Policy and Procedural Guide for Accommodation Providers’, available as a free download.

You are welcome to use this policy and to adapt it for your specific circumstances. A bed bug management policy that is adopted and adhered to may also reduce the potential for litigation.

Facilities managers need good resources on bed bugs, including the Code and Procedural Guide mentioned above. Just recently I released a help guide for the identification of bed bugs, called ‘Do You Have Bed Bugs?’ This full-colour 48-page booklet features pictures of bed bugs and where they can be found. It costs $5 (plus postage and handling); contact me if interested.

It would appear that many accommodation providers, their associations and, sadly, many facilities managers, have adopted an ‘ostrich’ mentality and have just hoped that the bed bug problem will go away. Clearly it has not and will not as there are no magical silver control bullets on the horizon. The future with bed bugs is unfortunately bleak and it is important that you are not the captain of the sinking ship by allowing bed bugs to bite your business.

Stephen Doggett is a world authority on bed bugs and their control, and is the director of Medical Entomology at Westmead Hospital. He is the principal author of ‘A Code of Practice for the Control of Bed Bug Infestations in Australia’ and author of ‘A Bed Bug Management Policy and Procedure Guide’. For consultancy on bed bugs, please contact Stephen; Stephen.Doggett@health.nsw.gov.au

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