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As Bedbug Anxiety Spreads to Asia Exterminators Turn Profits


It’s a good time to be a professional bug killer in Asia.

Fears of major bedbug outbreaks have been palpable across the Asia-Pacific region for weeks, amplified by breathless news media coverage of an outbreak in France earlier this year and a smaller, more recent one in South Korea. Those cases, along with a general rise in post-pandemic travel, have stoked fears — grounded in reality — that airline passengers will inadvertently seed outbreaks in other places.

In Hong Kong, recent reports of a bedbug sighting on an airport train led to several days of feverish news coverage. And in Seoul, teams of workers in white hazmat suits have fanned out across an airport looking for possible infestations.

So far no major bedbug outbreaks have been reported in Asia this fall, but some residents and municipalities are already hiring pest-control companies or buying pest-control supplies with abandon.

Exterminators say they are fine with that.

“Bedbugs have always been around,” but consumer interest in pest control has risen lately as a result of news media coverage, said Darian Ee, the director of Ikari, a pest-control company in Singapore that has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent uptick in business since the outbreak in France. “It’s more top of mind.”

Bedbug mania is not new unique to Asia, of course. The bloodsucking pests are a common feature of urban life around the world, including in New York City. But if Paris is the season’s unofficial world capital of bedbug anxiety (trailed perhaps by London), then Asian megacities like Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore are rising quickly in the league tables.

In South Korea, where only a handful of cases have been reported over the past decade, recent reports have put the public and the news media on high alert. So far there are at least 13 confirmed cases and a few dozen suspected ones nationwide. That was enough for the government to launch a four-week prevention-and-disinfection campaign in dormitories, buses, trains and other public places.

“Public anxiety is inevitable as reports continue to come in,” Park Ku-yeon, the official in charge of the campaign, told other officials recently.

Another inevitability: profits for exterminators. Bloomberg News reported this month that the share prices of several South Korean pest-control firms had risen by 30 percent or more after news reports about bedbugs. Yonhap, a South Korean news agency, reported that sales of bedbug insecticides at one online mall rose more than 800 percent during the first week of November compared with the same period last year.

As normal travel resumes after the pandemic, it is inevitable that international travelers will help to spread bedbugs around the world, said Chow-Yang Lee, a professor of urban entomology at the University of California, Riverside. He said he had “no doubt” that there would be an increase in bedbug infestation in the Asia Pacific similar to the one that is sweeping Europe.

“Just imagine if one checked into a hotel in Bangkok that has bedbugs, the bedbugs hitchhiked in the luggage and this person then checked into another hotel in Singapore,” he said. “The insects will get transported to the new location, leave the luggage and start the infestation in this new location.”

One of the region’s most anxious places is Hong Kong. The authorities are distributing bedbug-warning leaflets to passengers at its international airport, and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said in a statement this week that it was working to reduce “the chance of transmission of bedbugs from overseas to the local community.”

But a biology professor at a local university, Chiu Siu-wai, felt compelled to remind a local broadcaster recently that bedbugs, which thrive in the warm, dark nooks that a subtropical place like Hong Kong has in abundance, are already the city’s “second most popular bloodsucking insect” after mosquitoes.

Someone has to kill them. Francisco Pazos, the director of NoBedBugs HK, said that this month his business was more than double the usual, with over 400 extermination jobs. He attributed the increase mainly to a rise in post-pandemic socializing, but also to anxiety.

“More people in Hong Kong are in this state of panic after seeing the news reports,” he said.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Taiwan, where the Environment Ministry warned residents this week to look for bedbugs in secondhand furniture and to check their suitcases after returning from international trips.

Lin Chien-liang, a spokesman for Johnson Group, a pest control company in New Taipei City, said that his business had doubled since the summer. He said that was partly because the island lifted the last of its Covid-era travel restrictions in October 2022.

But not entirely: Some people are just anxious. Mr. Lin said customers sometimes requested repeat exterminations even after an initial one fully eliminated the bedbugs in their home.

“Even though we assure them that everything is disinfected, some people still get scared,” he said. Each session runs more than $1,000, and sometimes over $2,000.

Professor Lee said there has been a global resurgence of bedbugs that began about 25 years ago in Europe and spread gradually to the United States and Asia.

One of the two common bedbug species is typically more prevalent in temperate regions, while the other prefers tropical and subtropical ones, he said. But as indoor environments become more uniform, thanks partly to climate-control systems, there are more locations where both species thrive.

Another trend is that bedbugs are increasingly resistant to certain kinds of insecticides — a problem that has been documented in Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and other countries.

The best way to kill insecticide-resistant bedbugs is with extreme heat, Professor Lee said. But because heat methods can be 10 or more times as expensive, many pest-management operators continue to use insecticides.

Mr. Ee in Singapore said that while he sometimes used heat-based methods, his pesticide mixes were still effective because they were industrial strength.

“I can’t say the same for the off-the-shelf insecticides and whatever that people buy off the internet,” he said.

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