July 7, 2020

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More action required in battle against bedbugs

Editorial

Officials say bedbugs are not a public-health issue. Tell that to the people whose homes have been infested by the bloodsucking parasites.

The reason Manitoba, like other jurisdictions, does not categorize bedbugs as a public-health issue, a designation that could trigger much-needed resources and funding, is that the insect is not known to spread disease.

Thousands of Manitobans living in bedbug-infested misery

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Elizabeth Warbansky, who has been living with an infestation for six months, has tried to wash out the blood left by bedbugs in her sheets, but she can't get the stains out. (Supplied photo)
Elizabeth Warbansky, who has been living with an infestation for six months, has tried to wash out the blood left by bedbugs in her sheets, but she can't get the stains out. (Supplied photo)

Posted: 24/01/2020 7:00 PM

Elizabeth Warbansky desperately needs to scratch. Her arms. Her scalp. Her backside.

The constellation of red dots all over her body taunted her before she was prescribed anti-itching cream. If a bedbug isn’t sucking on her blood, phantom pests are. It’s been this way for the better half of the last six months, when the 66-year-old first learned her one-bedroom apartment in south River Heights was infested.

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That’s small consolation to the many Manitobans battling bedbugs, for whom it’s definitely a critical issue, personal if not public.

The psychological, social and economic effects of a bedbug infestation can be overwhelming. People lose sleep, literally, knowing the pests typically hide in the seams of mattresses, awaiting the opportunity to emerge and feed on their hosts. They experience considerable stigma as workplaces, schools and friends are cautious about welcoming people who may unwittingly transport bedbugs. Repeated remediation treatments can cost thousands of dollars, and the disruption in a family’s life can be tumultuous.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of Manitobans can personally confirm a recent resurgence of bedbug infestations. Two local pest-control companies say they alone performed 9,264 bedbug-related chemical and heat treatments last year. Among Canadian cities, Winnipeg is second only to Toronto in bedbug infestations. More complete statistics are unavailable because Manitoba has no single authority assigned to the bedbug issue, an absence of oversight that should be rectified.

The bedbug scourge doesn’t currently fall under a specific municipal or provincial department, leaving citizens without an abundance of accurate information regarding the extent of the problem in Manitoba and what measures, if any, are underway to contain it.

This lack of government initiative might surprise the unfortunate citizens who discover the pests and immediately start looking for help.

Manitoba could follow the example of other jurisdictions by tasking leadership with co–ordinating an offensive against bedbugs.

The first step is identify the bugs, which are reddish brown and about the size of apple seeds. In Toronto, the public health department will accept samples of suspected bedbugs and corroborate the dreaded suspicion. But in Manitoba, no civic or provincial authority will accept samples for identification purposes.

Are government subsidies or tax breaks available to help Manitobans dealing with bedbug infestations? Yes, a small amount of financial help is available to help defray the considerable expenses, but the funding is not widely publicized. Also, the criteria to qualify for financial help, which is typically distributed through non-profit community organizations, have been tightened and are of assistance mostly to people dealing with hoarding or sanitation issues.

How about helping prospective tenants by listing multi-family units and apartment buildings that have had bedbug problems? In California, government officials are required to provide in writing the bedbug history of a building when asked. In Manitoba, renters are afforded no similar help from government.

The stress caused by bedbug infestations can be overwhelming. (Mike Deal / Free Press files)

The stress caused by bedbug infestations can be overwhelming. (Mike Deal / Free Press files)

Instead, Manitobans have to rely on alternatives that are, lamentably, open to misuse. There are crowdsourced websites that list the addresses of buildings purported to have had bedbugs, but in those online settings anyone can add an address, creating the risk of unethical renters falsely reporting infestations in an effort to harm the reputations of landlords with whom they are involved in disputes.

Manitoba could follow the example of other jurisdictions by tasking leadership with co-ordinating an offensive against bedbugs, investing in public education and providing funding to help people on the margins afford treatments before bedbugs migrate to neighbouring suites and houses.

Everyone who has had bedbugs agrees on one point: you can’t ignore the problem and hope it goes away. The bedbugs are currently winning in Manitoba, and beating them will require the province to step up its action.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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