FORGET the threats of terrorist attacks or cyber warfare – what is really alarming New Yorkers is a creature just a few millimetres long and extremely itchy.
Cimex lectularius, the bedbug, has struck many of the city’s famous institutions, such as the Empire State Building, the UN, the Waldorf Astoria hotel and Bloomingdale’s.
The worst infestation of the blood-sucking parasite for decades has led Mayor Michael Bloomberg to set up a bedbug advisory board, for fear they could damage the city’s $31 billion tourism industry. He also plans to appoint a “bedbug tsar”.
And the hysteria is not confined to New York.
You can get a bedbug alert iPhone app that shows maps of 10 cities with red dots to represent places where the pests have been found. Reports are constantly updated and users submit their own sightings. The app has a tutorial explaining what to look for or how to tell if you have been bitten.
Joel Stein, a columnist for Time magazine, has described how his wife forced him to take off his clothes and shower on entering the house after travelling.
“We were once a nation deathly afraid of statistically improbable but powerful things: witches, communism, Mexicans taking our jobs,” he wrote. “Now we are freaked out about bedbugs.”
Bedbugs have no respect for authority. Last weekend trained dogs were sent into the UN headquarters to sniff out bedbugs that had taken up residence in a set of antique chairs in a conference room. They were replaced with bug-proof plastic and steel chairs before any diplomatic incidents.
The Waldorf Astoria is being sued by a Florida woman who claims her daughter was bitten while staying there. The hotel insists it found no evidence of bedbugs in her room.
Shops hit include Niketown, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch and Bloomingdale’s.
Empire State Building officials found a bedbug in the basement, and the Lincoln Centre for performing arts announced it had discovered traces of the vermin the day after its annual autumn gala, attended by the stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Natalie Portman.
The infestation has inspired the musical Bedbugs!!!, whose numbers include Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite and He Pierced Me.
And of course, in the birthplace of Sex and the City, there is anxiety about how the pests can compromise your love life.
CNN ran a piece on “the new fear” facing “the millions of singles looking for love in Manhattan”.
“Stacie Handwerker is always on the lookout for a good man,” ran the report, “but there’s one thing crawling around Manhattan that she won’t be letting into her knickers: bedbugs!”
Donna Barnes, a relationship counsellor, advises against telling people on a first date that you have bedbugs but to come clean when the relationship has grown.
“We are on the threshold of a bedbug pandemic,” said National Pest Management Association spokeswoman Missy Henriksen. “They can go into clean and dirty properties alike. They are equal-opportunity pests.”
The one group not complaining are the exterminators. Turnover has almost tripled in three years to $263 million last year. The figure is expected to be far higher this year.