[Hpn] Bed bugs spark public warning

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Wed, 17 Dec 2003 07:36:03 -0500


December 17, 2003 06:52 AM The Toronto Star

Pesky bed bugs spark public warning
Now plaguing local shelters; private homes could be next
Resurgence in the medieval bugs a worldwide phenomenon


A pest of the past is staging a massive comeback in some of the city's 
shelters and hostels. And despite warm wishes to sleep tight, these bed 
bugs are biting.

"They're all over the place," said Beric German, a health promotion 
worker with Street Health, a homeless outreach agency.

"They're in rooming houses, they're in apartments, they're in shelters.

"People don't know how to get rid of them."

Experts agree it's only a matter of time until the biting bugs, which 
are irritating, pervasive and virtually indestructible, spread into the 
general population.

"As the source populations grow, the rate of spread will inevitably 
increase and bed bugs will start to appear in hotels, apartments, 
theatres, restaurants, public transit, hospitals and eventually detached 
single family homes," warns a bulletin issued yesterday by the 
University of Toronto's Centre for Urban and Community Studies.

There are no official statistics about the number of bed bugs scurrying 
around the city, or even the number of places affected, but evidence 
suggests that the bugs plague at least a dozen homeless shelters and 
hostels, as well as non-profit housing units and women's shelters.

"People can't wash, they can't get a proper shower and they can't wash 
their clothes," German said.

"People begin to carry the bed bugs with them."

"This is just a broad thing that we're seeing," said entomologist Tim 
Myles, who co-authored the U of T bulletin.

"This is not unique to Toronto. This is a worldwide phenomenon."

In fact, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, at least 28 U.S. 
states have reported an infestation of these medieval bugs. Britain has 
also seen a resurgence in the blood-eating bugs.

"Every big city in the world has this problem," Myles said.

Hungry bed bugs are tiny, measuring about half a centimetre, translucent 
and virtually flat. They're superb at hiding in cracks and crevices, 
emerging only at night to latch on to skin, then bite and feed.

After a blood feeding, they turn dark brown and can balloon to twice 
their normal size.

Their bites can cause anything from slightly itchy red bumps to 
irritated welts with swelling and even scabbing.

"Very fortunately, they don't transmit diseases," Myles said. However, 
he noted that the bugs may play a "minor role" in the transmission of 
hepatitis B.

"They're still very, very serious nuisance pests," he said.

"(Bed bugs) are frightening for people, because once they get a hold on 
people, they're hard to get rid of."

Beric German, health promotion worker

Bed bugs were virtually eradicated with the advent of chemical 
pesticides, such as DDT, in the 1940s.

But once pest control companies switched from spraying general 
pesticides to setting gel-baits to kill cockroaches in the early 1990s, 
bed bugs had a golden opportunity to go forth and procreate.

"In solving the cockroach problem, we accidentally created a new 
problem," Myles said.

Street nurses in Toronto first began hearing about the bed bug scourge a 
year ago, when homeless people turned up at community health centres 
covered in angry red wounds.

"It's very, very bad, because it's spread really quickly through the 
shelter system," said street nurse Cathy Crowe.

"It's really causing a lot of problems."

With shelters already grappling with a micro-epidemic of tuberculosis, a 
highly infectious respiratory illness, Crowe said many homeless people 
would rather sleep outside in the cold than risk their health at a shelter.

"Those two things are pretty scary for people," she said.

"You can't protect yourself from either. Word spreads and when you've 
got a shelter that's been spraying, people hear about it."

Already, doctors have diagnosed a few homeless men bitten by bed bugs 
with cellulitis, a painful bacterial infection that spreads under the skin.

"(Bed bugs) are frightening for people, because once they get a hold on 
people, they're hard to get rid of," German said.

Meetings with hostel and shelter workers were held yesterday and will 
continue today to share information about dealing with the problem, said 
Maura Lawless, manager of the city's operations and support services.

Some places are spraying; others are wrapping mattresses in plastic.

Street health workers say the homeless need better access to washers and 
dryers, since the high heat of a dryer will kill the pesky bugs.

"There are a few organizations that have been on top of it the last few 
years, but it's a real uphill battle," Crowe said.

Myles has conducted a few experiments with adhesive tape and glue traps 
at eight local rooming house rooms, and found that the sticky surface of 
carpet tape is the best at trapping errant bugs.

They peeled as many as 14 bugs from the tape left in one room alone.

"How to deal with this and how to deal with it in a modern way needs to 
be developed," Myles said.

Although bed bugs could easily be dismissed as nothing more than a 
nuisance, health workers say they're a sign of things to come: an 
infestation means lice can't be far behind, and those parasites carry 
typhus, trench fever and other epidemic diseases.

"These are major public health concerns," Myles said.