Bedbug bane

PHOTO: Bedbug bane

A posh hotel, a backpacker's hostel, a foreign worker dormitory and even your bed.

What might they have in common? Bedbugs. And lots of them, it seems.

From student initiatives to trained dogs sniffing out the insects in posh hotels, those fighting the scourge of bedbugs say the problem appears to be worse now.

In the last five years, the number of phone calls to Origin Exterminators about bedbugs has doubled, to nearly 40 calls per month, said its business development executive, Ms Audrey Ong.

Other pest busters, like ABJ Pest Management, reported an increase of about 30 per cent in bedbug operations.

Mr Ng Say Kiat, vice-president of the Singapore Pest Management Association (SPMA), said: "Even a modest increase in cases, when multiplied by the 240 pest control companies we have in Singapore, can mean a phenomenal spike in bedbug cases."

This can be attributed to an increase in international travel and greater public awareness of bedbugs, he said.

The bugs, which are 4mm to 5mm in size and are usually difficult to spot with the naked eye, are hitchhikers that can be transported from overseas in luggage or on clothing.

Fortunately, although irritating, bedbugs do not carry diseases.

Hotels and foreign worker dormitories which see large numbers of foreigners come and go every day, are bedbug hotspots.

The situation is especially bad in foreign worker dormitories, where operators often pay little attention to workers' living conditions, said Ms Ong.

In rental flats, where residents live in close proximity with one another and where hygiene standards are not as high, bedbug infestation can spread from unit to unit in a matter of days.

It is a big problem in at least five Housing Board neighbourhoods with rental blocks, with many elderly residents the unintentional hosts of these bloodsucking insects, said a report in The Straits Times.

Corridor and household clutter, common in one-room rental flats, are optimal hiding places for bedbugs.

Said SPMA president Andrew Chan: "Many old folks in rental flats also have the habit of bringing home recycled furniture, which might be infested with bedbugs."

In the past year, Mr Ng has seen more well-maintained residential units, offices and even five-star hotels being infested by bedbugs.

"Just because you don't see them on the exterior doesn't mean they don't exist," he said.

WIDESPREAD

Ms Ong also warned that bedbug cases are more common than they seem. "Cinemas, public buses - they (bedbugs) really are everywhere."

"You only need to have a pregnant bedbug, or a pair of mating bedbugs on you or in your bag for infestation to spread," she said.

But until there is greater openness on the subject of bedbugs, any attempt to deal with the growing problem will be largely ineffective, Ms Ong added.

She said: "Many hotels and business don't like to admit or talk about their bedbug issue from fear of consumer backlash."

JOINING FIGHT AGAINST BEDBUGS ARE...

DOGS

Sparky starts its day with a 20-minute run on the treadmill in a terrace house in central Singapore.

It is then led to a fully air-conditioned room and fed a specially calibrated diet.

The four-year-old beagle (seen on left with his handler, Mr Anandan Vythalingam), which was brought from Australia to Singapore in 2010, is Origin Exterminators' foreign talent catch.

Trained in Australia through the repeated sniffing of live bedbugs, Sparky can detect the chemicals that bedbugs emit to communicate with one another.

A 2008 study by University of Florida researchers found that bedbug-detecting canines like Sparky were 98 per cent accurate.

Sparky also detects bedbugs three times faster than a regular human worker, who can rely only on his or her sense of sight.

A day at work sees Sparky crawl excitedly into a client's house, sit down and point its nose at a suspected site of bedbug infestation.

Mr Anandan checks the site for any visible bedbugs and rewards Sparky with a doggie treat if it is right.

In hotels, where clients want bedbug inspection to be kept under wraps, Sparky has to carry out its job secretly.

Hidden under a thick sheet of cloth, the dog is wheeled from room to room in a trolley used for room service.

Sparky has remain to silent. If it barks, the job is considered a failure.

Ms Audrey Ong, a business development executive with Origin Exterminators, said: "The cost alone of bringing Sparky here is a five-figure sum."

Then, there are retraining and upkeeping costs that set that firm back another low five-figure sum monthly, she added.

STUDENTS VOLUNTEERS

The bedbugs could be found in the refrigerator, toilet, cupboards, clothes, pots and pans.

"They were everywhere," said student volunteer Cheryl Huang, 17, of a oneroom unit she had helped clean one weekend earlier this month.

Cheryl is part of a team of four Raffles Institution (JC) students who organised themselves to clean the homes of the elderly living in oneroom flats.

So far, the team has organised two home-cleaning exercises and have spruced up 25 one-room units with the help of 120 student volunteers from Raffles Institution (JC).

During the course of their selfinitiated project, Cheryl and her team came across many bedbug-infested units, but many of the occupants did not always accept the team's help.

"Some of the elderly refused to clear out their bedbug-infested furniture even when we promised to buy them a new set of furniture," said team member Lawrence Wong, 17.

Many of those they helped had also resigned themselves to a bedbuginfested life.

Cheryl said she sometimes felt dispirited over "the sheer number of homes out there that require but refuse help".

She added: "It pains to know we can never get to them."

Despite this, her team is committed to carry on the fight against bedbugs.

"There are also those who are still waiting for help," said team member Kimberley goh, 17.

The relief and joy on the faces of occupants and their neighbours after each successful cleaning exercise is priceless to the team.

"It keeps us going and makes us want to do even more," Kimberley said.

6 TELL-TALE SIGNS OF BEDBUGS

1. Live bedbugs

2. Bedbug droppings, made up of digested blood

3. Bedbug carcasses

4. Bedbug exoskeleton shed during moulting.

5. Bloodspots around bed area.

6. Itchy bites that are close to one another.


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