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New label on bedbugs proposed

Call them health threat to spur battle: experts

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Bedbugs should be considered a public-health threat even though the parasites don't transmit disease, argues a group of national experts that includes Winnipeg entomologist Taz Stuart and University of Manitoba sociologist Prof. Elizabeth Comack.

Canadian cities could wind up with more tools at their disposal to curb the spread of the blood-sucking insects -- especially among disadvantaged inner-city residents -- by defining the bedbug problem as a health issue, the Winnipeggers write in an academic paper co-authored with physicians and environmental-health experts from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

"Because bedbugs have not been proven to transmit disease between humans, there is resistance to framing their resurgence as a public-health threat," write the seven co-authors of a paper that appeared in the November/December 2012 edition of the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

"We make the case that framing the bedbug problem as a public-health threat is key to the implementation of effective strategies to its management -- especially for vulnerable populations."

As recently as 15 years ago, bedbugs were all but unknown in North America. But an increase in global travel and the phase-out of certain pesticides contributed to a meteoric rise in infestations over the past decade.

Although the small, elusive insects don't spread disease between people, they are associated with negative health effects such as allergic reactions, bacterial skin infections and scarring "as a result of the intense scratching they provoke," say the authors of the paper. People exposed to the pesticides used to kill bedbugs are also at greater risk of chronic disease.

More significantly, bedbug infestations are associated with mental-health issues such as "depression, loss of appetite, insomnia, social isolation and/or hypervigilance," which together can lead to severe sleep deprivation and ultimately other "physiological and neurocognitive health effects," says a separate paper co-authored by Stuart in the January 2013 edition of Environmental Health Review.

While bedbugs can be found anywhere -- luxury hotels and upscale homes have been treated for the insects -- people living in multi-family housing with a high rate of turnover are at the greatest risk. Experiences fighting bedbugs in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg suggest a co-ordinated approach to inspecting properties, treating infestations and preventing further spread works best under the aegis of public-health authorities, write the authors of the Canadian Journal of Public Health paper.

While redefining the nature of the bedbug threat might sound esoteric, such a move could enable legislation to back up existing efforts to inspect properties, conduct treatments and engage in public-education campaigns. But the move could also place a greater onus on provincial and federal health authorities, all of whom are reluctant to take on more responsibilities.

"At this time, we are not considering reclassifying bedbugs as a public-health hazard," a spokesman for Manitoba Health said in a statement, noting the Public Health Agency of Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain the same opinion.

Comack, who has documented the effects of bedbug infestations on inner-city Winnipeg residents, suggested the time has come to stop viewing the parasites through a purely biomedical lens.

"There is a kind of frustration across the country about this hesitancy to see it as a public-health issue," she said. "People may think we've done all this education and we have all this awareness, so we don't have to do anything else. But this isn't going away."

Nonetheless, the study she co-authored praises the combined bedbug-fighting efforts of the City of Winnipeg and Province of Manitoba.

Now for some good news

While it's too soon to pop any champagne bottles, there is a hint of evidence Winnipeg's bedbug scourge may be tapering off.

An academic paper co-authored by city entomologist Taz Stuart reports the number of bedbug infestations in Winnipeg dropped between 2011 and 2012, even though the number of infestations in provincially owned housing complexes "reduced only fractionally."

Toward the end of last year, bedbug infestations in Winnipeg were down to 2008 levels, which represents a minor victory considering the sharp rise in reports over the previous decade, the paper suggested.

Peter de Graaf, Winnipeg's bylaw enforcement manager, said he has encountered anecdotal evidence of a drop in private pest-control calls to eradicate bedbugs. At the same time, the total number of requests for bedbug inspections in Winnipeg increased slightly in a comparison of two seven-month periods of 2011 and 2012.

While this doesn't paint a definitive picture of the spread of bedbugs, it does appear the combined city-provincial bedbug-fighting effort has had some form of positive effect, de Graaf said.

The city devotes the equivalent of two full-time bylaw enforcement officers to inspect properties for bedbugs. The province runs education programs and offers grants to help communities and vulnerable people deal with infestations.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 A4

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