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Photo by Jack Huynh, Orange Photography

San Francisco Bedbugs: A global epidemic

By Jordanna Thigpen

February 17, 2006

There is a global epidemic, and it's not avian flu. Instead, it's a broader and more insidious problem: bedbugs. Our city is just one of many across the world with the problem.

Since 2001, SoMA, Mission, and TL have been infested with bedbugs. Central City Extra's November 2005 issue was devoted to the problem. It can be apparently/allegedly be traced to several sources: (1) SRO and hotel management which refuse to address the problem; (2) residents, who will not agree to cooperate with a major and necessary extermination; (3) infestation from other cities and nations; and (4) a lack of cooperation and coordination between local government agencies. Why is this a critical public health issue for the whole city to address? Because even if you do not reside in District 6 and don't consider it your problem, the bugs have started to infest tourist hotels, and that means our economy is at risk. There are recent reports of the bugs turning up at some big name San Francisco hotels. Perhaps as a city we can now come together to solve this problem.

Some psychologists say it's comforting for a human to experience suffering with the knowledge that other humans are going through the same experience. Is it comforting to know that other humans are having their blood siphoned from their veins on a nightly basis, all across the world? Is it comforting to know that each of us is a potential carrier, because the bugs can lay flat and hitch a ride on clothing, luggage, and personal effects? Is it comforting to know that other cities are having as much difficulty solving the problem?

Here in San Francisco, we have to address all four components of the problem. First, management should be accountable for the conditions in the hotels. At a bare minimum, all mattresses should be covered in plastic. Rooms should be treated with stronger pesticides (to combat both cockroaches and bedbugs; apparently finding a dual agent has been difficult.) More stringent amendments to the Health Code need to be passed by the Board of Supervisors, and failing that, must be introduced by our Assembly members at the State Level to literally create a new chapter in Health & Safety. Assuredly, we need fewer chemical agents in our society. But this is precisely the type of threat that we should save the heavy artillery for.

Next, residents need to cooperate with management in solving the problem. Some residents are unable to leave their rooms - obviously, these individuals need special aid and procedures must be set up by management to deal with the elderly, the disabled, and the ill. But some residents are unwilling, and since any untreated area can cause a re-infestation, raging against the machine in this instance is a public health risk. Should residents be forcibly removed from their rooms for treatment? What means justifies the end?

In Australia, in the capital cities of Europe, in New York, in Los Angeles, the bedbugs are biting. Like tuberculosis, bedbugs are experiencing a second adolescence in our dense urban societies. It is a worldwide epidemic, and our infestation is due in part to the mobility of humans (hostels are particularly susceptible.) Other cities are apparently just as hapless at dealing with the problem. Only regular treatment of problematic locations will keep address the continued re-infestation from travelers.

There seems to be a lack of coordination between the various city agencies which address the problem. The Department of Public Health needs dedicated resources and a directive to address the issue in a meaningful way. Perhaps major tenants' and landlords' groups can finally come together, with DPH as a facilitator, to eradicate bedbugs.

What we need is a Bedbug Partnership. Before snarky spectators dismiss this solution, note that New York has recently established a task force in response to its own epidemic. We do not know what solutions are feasible, and what laws may be passed, until we examine the issue with all sides at the table.

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