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Invasion of the bedbugs

Outbreaks cost health system thousands

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A spike in the number of severe bedbug infestations has forced officials to spend thousands of dollars to protect health workers from bloodsucking pests that sometimes drop off ceilings and bite them.

Nancy Phillips, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority occupational health nurse, said home-care and other community-based health workers have seen an increase in the number of homes and apartments heavily infested with bedbugs in the last three years.

Some places are so bad, Phillips said, home-care staff have the bugs crawling on them while they're caring for residents.

Between 2007 and 2008, the WRHA spent more than $10,600 on protective gowns and booties for home-care workers -- a cost that Phillips expects will continue to rise as the insects spread.

"Now we're seeing more and more places with heavy infestations."

"They're dropping off the ceiling into staff's hair. Staff are getting bitten while they're in a client's home providing services."

Phillips spoke at the 2009 Bedbug Symposium on Wednesday -- a forum organized by Assiniboine Community College in response to the resurgence of the pesky bugs. Cities across North America have seen a surge in the nocturnal critters, and an increase in international travel and a ban on pesticides such as DDT have made it easier for bedbugs to spread and become resistant to some insecticides.

Phillips said the growing pest problem has led some home-care workers to try to exercise their right to refuse caring for certain patients. In response, Phillips said WRHA invested in protective equipment to decrease the likelihood staff will bring an infestation home with them or spread the bugs to other clients.

It's rare that a home-care worker will bring an infection home, Phillips said, noting this has happened only about three times.

Health workers are expected to provide care to patients with bedbug infestations, since the bugs don't pose any danger or spread disease.

Phillips said health workers who complain about the bugs are educated about them and how to protect themselves.

"They're just disgusted," she said. "They're fed up with going into icky situations."

Phillips said the bugs have also dropped off patients in exam rooms and have changed the way crisis-stabilization units accept patients.

In an effort to cut down on the spread of the bugs, she said patients are given clean clothes and told to shower upon arriving in crisis units. Phillips said their old clothes are bagged and laundered in hot water and the number of personal belongings patients can bring in is limited.

She said the bedbug scourge makes the relationship between clients and home-care staff more difficult, since patients may feel less comfortable with workers dressed in protective gear who won't sit on their furniture.

"Clients may feel defensive about it," Phillips said.

The bugs can also exacerbate an existing mental illness, she said, particularly for patients who hallucinate that things are crawling on them.


Signs of trouble

BEDBUGS are about one centimetre long and feed on human blood and hide in crevices in bed frames, mattresses, sofas, and baseboards. Signs your place may be infested:

  • You find inexplicable itchy welts on your body.
  • There are black stain marks on your mattress or box spring, behind your bed or on the wall.
  • You notice a pungent, peculiar odour.
  • There are dead bug skins or crawling bugs on or near the bed, curtains, or folds in the sheets.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2009 B1

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