The Case of the Incredibly Squishy Bed Bug Stats

We still haven’t heard from New York City Housing Authority spokesman Howard Marder.

Surprised, you say?

But we did get a nice email from David Segal wishing us well in our efforts.

We know you want to know why this matters. Why do we care that the Washington Post dismissed the bed bug problem in New York City?

We’re not journalists. We can’t be offended at the implicit insult in a story about a “bogus” journalistic trend. We are not pest management professionals, either. It wasn’t our professional integrity and intellectual honesty that were directly questioned. And while the imputation of delusional parasitosis was thrown out in David Segal’s story, we are fairly secure in our own mental health to, if not exactly brush it off, move ahead with our objectives.

So why are we spending any time on this? We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, after all.

Note: the rest of this post was written on March 30, after we’d heard from Howard Marder and requested a correction from the Washington Post.

While the unsupported assertions about PMPs and bed bug sufferers have unsettled many of us, it’s not why we asked the Post to correct its story. Nor is the tone of the story why we care.

Further, it pains me to even have to make this statement but it’s necessary. In his radio interview, David Segal jokingly said that he feared a visitation of Irony Bed Bugs, and that people had been writing to him wishing him bed bugs.

We do not wish bed bugs on anyone, ever, period.

But in this case we have to add: especially not David Segal. He lives in New York. New York City is not doing much to control the spread of bed bugs. Therefore, one more New Yorker who gets bed bugs? Absolute last thing we need.

So, finally, the reason we care: misrepresenting the scope of the bed bug problem in our city is important because it has public policy consequences. And when an influential media outlet does it, the injury is significant and no remedy is available to us.

In 2003, Dr. Tim Myles, in a bulletin of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies (warning, link loads a PDF), wrote about the following cause for concern in Toronto’s rise of bed bug infestations in city shelters:

If the resurgence of bed bugs in shelters and other public facilities is not contained, there is the risk of a continuous and escalating growth in the source populations, leading to larger-scale infestations, which will require more frequent and costly control efforts later.

As the source populations grow, the rate of spread will inevitably increase and bed bugs will start to appear in hotels, apartments, theatres, restaurants, public transit, hospitals and eventually detached single family homes.

Well, that day is here. In New York City we have bed bugs in schools and law firms. In a city newsroom. In theaters and maternity wards. Source or primary infestations in multiple sites and the potential for further spread is a reality.

How can cities achieve control? What is the first thing that must be done?

Infestations must be tracked. Counted. All sites of primary infestations, all potential vectors of the spread, must be identified and brought under control. We believe very strongly that infestations must be tracked via a non-adversarial reporting system and that the data must be made publicly available.

The available statistics in our city, from multiple sources and tracking only a subset of all infestations, paint a partial and confusing picture of the totality of infestations. But they are available and were available to the Post. A correction is due.

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