Explainer-Paris freaks out over bedbugs ahead of Olympic Games

PARIS (Reuters) – The French government is battling to contain a bout of nationwide panic over bedbugs in Paris just nine months before the capital hosts next summer’s Olympic Games.

Government officials were holding an emergency meeting on Friday on how to tackle a crisis borne out of anecdote and viral posts on social media and which is now filling talkshow airtime – even if pest-control experts remain largely nonplussed.

What are bedbugs?

Bed bugs are small, flat, wingless insects, measuring about a quarter of an inch, that hide in mattresses and bedding. They feed on blood and typically bite during the night.

Considered one of the world’s major “nuisance pests”, the primary host of bedbugs are humans. Although the parasites can be infected with human pathogens, no scientific study has found that they transmit disease.

Female bedbugs can deposit one to five eggs a day and may lay 200 to 500 eggs in their lifetime. They can survive for months while waiting for their next meal, pest control experts say.

Rail travellers, cinema-goers and U.S. influencers in Paris for Fashion Week have been among those reporting seeing the bugs, or being bitten by them.

What has been the French response?

A mixture of media hysteria, political opportunism and national anxiety over whether the tiny critters might ruin the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Leftist lawmaker Mathilde Panot took a vial she said contained bedbugs into parliament. She told Prime Minster Elisabeth Borne bedbugs were everywhere and she lambasted the government for inaction.

“Madame prime minister, these little insects are spreading despair in our country. Do we need to wait for Matignon (PM’s office) to become infested before you act,” Panot said.

Sniffer dogs are inspecting French trains and the Paris metro for bedbugs though so far not a single one has been found on public transport, the transport minister said.

Is Paris really facing a ‘Bug-pocalypse’?

Between 2017 and 2022, more than one in ten French households had been infested with bedbugs, the health authority says. The National Agency for Food, Environmental and Workplace Safety (ANSES) said the presence of bedbugs did not mean poor hygiene.

A pest control companies’ organisation said bedbug callouts in the June-August period were up 65% on the same period last year. Pest control is expensive and often out of reach for low-income families.

Paris is not alone. Pest-control group Orkin this year released its leading U.S. bedbug city list. Chicago, New York and Philadelphia took the tops spots.

“Of course we have more bedbugs than before, like every big city in the world,” said Nicolas Roux de Bezieux, co-founder of pest control consultancy Badbugs. “But it’s not the explosion you would think when watching television.”

Why are bedbugs on the march?

Entomologist Jean-Michel Berenger told newspaper Le Monde that several decades ago, bedbugs were kept in check by cheap and potent insecticides. Those insecticides, including DDT, were later found to be dangerous to human health and banned.

Bedbugs have successfully developed resistance to other, milder insecticides, scientists have said.

The latest rebound in bedbug numbers in Paris is in part down to a revival in tourism in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Bedbugs are often carried in clothing and baggage.

How can travellers and households prevent bedbug infestations?

Tips for travellers from pest control groups include inspecting bedding, taxi and metro seats for signs of infestation, including tiny rust-coloured spots on bed sheets.

Luggage should be closely examined when repacking and once back home.

Households should remove all clutter to make finding bedbugs easier, plus washing and drying bed linen often and on the hottest temperature allowed for the fabric.

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Antonia Cimini; Editing by Angus MacSwan)