Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Saturday, 27 November 2010

The bedbugs of New York turn up in BBC studios

UN building in New York
The UN has been battling the bedbugs in various parts of its office complex

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, New York

Infestations of bedbugs have spread across New York and no-one knows where they will turn up next.

In recent days there has been a buzz of activity in the UN's corridors of power: intense discussions in the hallways, reporters conferring in hushed tones, a flurry of e-mails.

Are the Palestinians about to declare statehood? Is the Security Council about to authorise a military strike on Iran? Is civil war breaking out again in Sudan?

Nope. Something of much greater import if you are a UN correspondent: a creeping infestation of bedbugs.

This is a scourge currently afflicting New York, with the bugs running rampant through hotels and, if one believes the rather hysterical media coverage, spreading in an uncontrolled contagion to buildings such as theatres, shops, restaurants and homes.

Bloodsucking pests

Now, bedbugs are not dangerous or life-threatening, although their bites itch and sting.

Sniffer dog
If a dog smells a bedbug, he or she will bark

The real pain is that, once a place is infested, a major and expensive fumigation process is required to get rid of them.

A month ago, the UN finally admitted it had been battling the blood-sucking pests in various parts of its sprawling office complex for more than a year.

So their eventual discovery in the UN media centre had an air of grim inevitability about it.

There is only one way to sniff out bedbugs - with dogs. If a dog smells a bedbug, he or she will bark.

So at the demand of the UN press corps, Rover (or some version of him) was enlisted, and we waited with bated breath for the results.

The e-mail came at midnight and yes - unlike the famous Sherlock Holmes story in which the dog does not bark in the night time - this time, it did (in two studios, no less).

And one of them was ours. Oh the shame. Oh the horror.


But what to do?

At first we had very quiet conversations about fumigation, trying to delay the inevitable exposure. It was hopeless.

We agreed that worse than the BBC having bedbugs would be for the BBC to cover up having bed bugs.

One person threw caution to the wind and knocked on our door to express solidarity...but most gave the BBC office a wide berth

In any case, everyone already knew. That is one of the banes of working in a media centre where journalists have a Rover-like nose for stories.

Some turned it into a joke.

One threw caution to the wind and knocked on our door to express solidarity: "I know what it feels like to be stigmatised," he said, "I've had bedbugs."

But most gave the BBC office a wide berth.

In panic, I turned to my husband.

He was dismissive. This terror of bedbugs is ludicrous, he said. It's all part of the culture of fear in America, the latest version of "reds under the bed". First it was communists, then Obama the Islamist terrorist, and now bedbugs.

Others who were accustomed to the intrigues of the UN pushed the conspiracy theory further. The question here, said one, is why has the BBC been "singled out"?

Bug corpse

I was in no mood to start drawing up an imaginary list of saboteurs, especially since the bugs in my studio were not of the old fashioned "spy" variety.

Bedbugs measure up to 5mm across

Still, at this stage, none of us had actually seen any sign of the terrible beasts, not even a bite.

After the fumigation, one of my BBC colleagues scoured the room. "Here," he said, "is a bedbug corpse."

I looked at the black speck on his finger. "Where are the head and legs," I asked after a long pause.

"Bedbugs are very small," he said solemnly. "Almost invisible," I suggested.

I asked the man in charge of the UN's bedbug operations to describe one.

I looked up to him as a kind of Indiana Jones of bedbug search and rescue, hunting them down in the nether regions of the UN with his canny canine.

"I don't know," he answered. "I've never seen one. We go by the dog. If it barks, we're on the scent. If it barks a lot, we get a second opinion - from another dog."

These dogs are in great demand, the new heroes for panicked New Yorkers. But there are also complaints of false positives, of dogs detecting bugs that are not there.

It was a thought to cheer me as the fumigations continued. The bugs were barked out of our studio but then sniffed in the press conference room. More inspections are slated.

"How bad is it," asked a correspondent from the rival CNN network, clearly worried that the bed bugs were on the march.

"I don't know," I said gravely, "all we know is that the dog barked."

"Huh, that means nothing," he said, shifting instantly from concerned colleague to competitor.

"I also bark when I pass a BBC studio."

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