Fear Under the Sheets

September 16, 2010

"Who’s sleeping in your bed?"

That's not a line from the latest campus campaign to promote safe sex. It’s Bedbugs 101.

The question appears on information posters in Pennsylvania State University dormitories, bringing students’ attention to the creepy-crawlers who just may be hitching a tuition-free ride. Although bedbugs don’t top most people’s list of favorite conversation topics, a growing number of educators and residence life officials are trying to change that for students, their parents, college employees and, for that matter, anyone who will listen.

But the educators must walk a fine line between awareness and panic, as the media storm of bedbug coverage (particularly in New York City) continues to disturb a population with limited knowledge. (Bedbugs 101 would teach that a bug is pinhead-sized; can live on fabric, in crevices or almost any protected location; leaves welts after biting, although up to 70 percent of people don’t react to bites; and does not spread disease.)

Entomologist Wayne Walker, senior pest control technician at the University of Florida, advises his own university and others on how to handle – or even better, avoid – infestations. In the last two weeks he’s received calls from colleges as far away as California seeking his help.

Calling during a break from eradicating a Florida housing unit, Walker warned about the dangers of ignoring or avoiding the issue. “We have to be cognizant of the fact that there’s bedbugs out there,” he said. “There’s a lot more than there were last year at this time, and it’s worse than it was the year before that. Right now it’s not getting any better; it’s getting worse.”

Walker doesn’t want to send people into a throw-away-all-your-belongings frenzy, but he does believe that the more exposure people have to information about the bugs, the better. “The further we get from this media blitz that’s going on, the less cognizant people will be,” he said.

Reports of infestations at colleges across the country have been steadily emerging.

This week, students arrived for freshman orientation at Catawba College only to find orders to wash and bag their fabric belongings, and spend the next day elsewhere while their dorms were fumigated. In July, the University of Colorado at Boulder treated three dozen family housing units and apartments, plus five dorm rooms. And this month, Wake Forest University inspected entire residence halls for the bugs, and treated several rooms.

Smaller cases of bedbugs in college housing have been reported at New York University, Missouri State University and Penn State. In the coming weeks, as more students -- some of whom spent time over the summer in places with large outbreaks -- return to college, and as the bugs start “reproducing and blossoming,” calls for eradication are expected to increase, Walker said.

Penn State is taking an assertive approach to the issue. David Manos, an assistant housing director, rejects the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” mentality when it comes to bedbugs. “In the property management business you never talk about your pest control issues…. It’s not something that’s good for business,” Manos said. “Unlike any other pest issues, we have this one that needs to be talked about.”

Manos and Penn State housing are part of the Centre Region Bedbug Coalition, a joint effort of the university, property managers and pest managers. The coalition takes a collaborative, proactive approach in dealing with bedbugs. “They’re cryptic, they’re durable, they’re prolific, and they’re hitchhikers,” Manos said. “The thought was, the only way we’re going to effectively deal with this is if we have a community-wide management strategy.”

The provocative posters are part of the strategy, which also involves presentations, events and training. “Education, at this point, is the only deterrent,” he said. “They are the pest control challenge of our generation. There’s no barrier for these bugs.”

Penn State has had three cases of bedbugs in residence halls this academic year – and 27 total since its first in April 2006 – and dozens more false alarms, mainly called in by students who mistook a welt for a bite.

And although some administrators were apprehensive about the approach in the beginning, not wanting panic to ensue, Manos said that hasn’t been an issue.

“I don’t see hysteria,” Manos said. “By and large I see people engaging and saying, ‘I hope I don’t get them, but what do I need to know?’ ”

Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, said that as long as the educators and their audiences are on the same page, students – and anyone else – should be able to respond rationally. “It’s the facts as the facts, not trying to spin it,” Fischhoff said. “If somebody is convinced that people are going to panic, that things are going to spin out of control, then they spin the message. Then things will get out of control.”

It’s important to be sure students really understand the message they’re receiving, he said, especially because they probably don’t know much about bedbugs to begin with. “Why do we communicate so badly about risk? Because people exaggerate how well they understand other people and how well other people understand them.”

If education is indeed the solution to America’s bedbug woes, at least colleges have plenty of opportunities. For instance, BedBug University’s North American Summit 2010, at which Walker will speak, takes place next week in Chicago. (The conference is sold out, and there is a waiting list of 200, he said.)

And James A. Baumann, communications director at the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International, said the organization’s magazine articles and conference presentations on the topic have been popular. “I don’t think bedbugs are going to be the downfall of residence halls,” Baumann said. “I think it’s just an issue to be monitored.”

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