In recent years, several North American cities have seen a major spike in the number of
bed bug reports. From increased travel and stricter laws surrounding the use of pesticides, bed bug infestations have become a common occurrence.
Bed bugs are oval-shaped insects and are visible in all stages of life. Adult bugs are around the size and shape of an apple seed, flattened and brown. Although these bugs are not known to transmit infectious diseases to humans, some people may have allergic reactions to their bite.
The insects typically attach themselves to surfaces including clothing, furniture and luggage and can affect anyone, anywhere and at any time. Bed bugs are attracted to the carbon dioxide that we exhale and our blood as a food source. They are not necessarily related to a lack of proper hygiene in those affected.
In 2014, Hamilton’s bed bug problem was nearing an epidemic after seeing a 600 per
cent increase in the issue since 2006. In 2015, city councillors approved a $1 million, three-year strategy to eradicate the problem.
Entering its second year, Hamilton’s Community Bed Bug Strategy sees six points of action in the elimination of bed bugs. Of the six points, which include public education, workplaces, assistance and advocacy, the focus on the Integrated Pest Management protocol ensures prevention and to treat the affected space with heat, vacuuming and pesticides.
Hamilton’s bed bug strategy hopes to break the stigma associated with the issue through public education in the form of advertisements.
To ensure its effectiveness, the integrated approach depends on the cooperation of building residents, the building owner and the pest control company. If followed correctly, this approach is said to minimize disturbance to residents and business operations, in addition to lowering long term pest control costs.
The assistance aspect of the strategy provides help to some residents of Hamilton who are of low income or on disability who are unable to do their part in pest control treatment. It typically takes a landlord, a pest control company and a tenant to eliminate bed bugs, and the tenant is typically responsible for preparing their unit. If they are unable to, however, the city is able to provide them with some assistance.
Within the strategy’s first year, the city assisted 48 people to eliminate bed bugs from their home, provided consultation to 66 residents and trained approximately 300 property staff representing around 12,000 apartment units.
A key element in the fight against bed bugs surrounds education and ending the stigma
attached to the issue. The stigma is attached to the notion that these pests are due to a lack of proper hygiene and is typically associated with those who live in low-income neighbourhoods.
Terry Quinn, the manager of Hamilton’s bed bug strategy, notes that breaking the stigma
surrounding bed bugs is challenging. Hamilton’s bed bug strategy hopes to break the stigma associated with the issue through public education in the form of advertisements.
“You may have seen some bus shelter ads that talk about a ‘no shame, no blame policy,” said Quinn. “We’ve been working with a number of landlords on that and landlords have been on board in recognizing that they can’t be blaming people for pests; [tenants] are allowed to report it. Bed bugs can find anyone anywhere any time, so there is really no reason to be ashamed for having bed bugs.”
The stigma is often a reason as to why more people are reluctant to talk about the issue, or to reach out for assistance in eliminating the insects from their home. Quinn notes that the city often hears from landlords when tenants are afraid to report the issue.
A major player of the prevention of bed bugs is the understanding that anyone can be affected by the issue, and the issue is not exclusively subject to poor hygiene.
Bed bugs are not a threat to one’s physical health, but have been known to take a psychological toll on those who are affected. Margaret Howard*, who asked for her name to be changed due to the stigma associated with the issue, is a student at McMaster who experienced bed bugs in her student house and the psychological trauma that came with it.
“I was extremely anxious about the issue, and had trouble sleeping at night because I imagined them crawling all over me,” said Howard. “Multiple coworkers noticed that I was sleep deprived, looked terrible and that my performance at work was deteriorating. I reacted very badly to their bites, and they swelled up to the size of a nickel to a quarter and did not disappear completely until two months after the initial bite.”
Matt Thomson hosts community events in the downtown core. Within the past year, Thomson has hosted community socials surrounding the issue of bed bugs and has created a network of peer support for individuals who are affected by the problem.
These events are typically casual, consisting of outdoor campfires or craft beer nights
and serve as a way for those affected to discuss the issue freely and without fear of stigma.
“One way to blow apart awkwardnesses is to just name it and the social awkwardness
around bed bugs is a big concern,” said Thomson. “Unless you have a personal connection [to bed bugs], the stigma it doesn’t really go away. While the city’s messaging is important, it’s that face-to- face connection that that’s super important.”
As the issue of bed bugs continues to grow, it is important to be able to recognize the insects and to act quickly. A major player of the prevention of bed bugs is the understanding that anyone can be affected by the issue, and the issue is not exclusively subject to poor hygiene.
“I think one of the main barriers to the public educating themselves on this topic is that
they believe if they are clean, hygienic and earning a sufficient income, they will not have to deal with the issue of bed bugs,” said Howard. “They think they are protected, when in reality, they are not.”
Hamilton’s Community Bed Bug Strategy will be focusing on the elimination of stigma through ad campaigns and public education while equipping landlords with the tools that are necessary to eradicate the problem. The city is also distributing posters and videos regarding how to do laundry if you are affected, or why you should not pick up discarded
There is no real way of knowing if the strategy is working until resident reports of bed bugs have diminished, but taking necessary precautions to preventing an infestation and educating oneself on the severity of the issue is the first step.