“I never really thought of it before, these tiny little bugs, how they could just bug you so much, well no, they can destroy your life. They can get you sick.” This excerpt is one example of the far-reaching impacts of a bed bug infestation from accounts collected by researchers Elizabeth Comack (Professor of Sociology, University of Manitoba) and James Lyons (Master’s degree in Sociology from University of Manitoba) and published in June by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba (CCPA-MB).
Their research centered on 16 of Winnipeg’s inner-city residents recruited for the study, as well as 5 workers at inner-city agencies, 3 landlords and 2 public health inspectors. The personal experiences of physical suffering, financial loss and social stigma do not make for good bedtime reading. It is however, necessary reading for all levels of government responsible for public health and policy makers who design social and economic factors to produce healthy individuals, communities and societies.
“What Happens When the Bed Bugs Do Bite?” is a research paper that examines the social impacts of a bed bug infestation. A case is made that bed bugs are a public health menace and public policy and procedures to address the problem of bed bugs ought to be framed in this context. Moving the problem of bed bugs from a ‘nuisance’ or a ‘pest’ to a ‘public health threat’:
- Recognizes the harmful health consequences that can result from battling a bed bug infestation;
- It calls attention to the social determinants of the problem; and
- It legitimates the need for concerted and co-ordinated action to address it.
This would open the door to support services and financial assistance for the populations at most risk – seniors, low-income and the unemployed. Citizens who have little or no financial or physical resources to wage a successful campaign in the bed bug war.
Although everyone is at risk of experiencing a bed bug infestation, the social impacts of bed bugs are overwhelming for individuals with marginal economic resources. Lack of adequate housing with little or no maintenance of minimal health standards plus dependence on used furniture and clothing mark the low-income population as accommodating harbourages for bed bugs. Once infested, the treatment costs (laundering, vacuuming, replacing mattresses and furniture) are devastating. Add the social stigma bed bug sufferers’ encounter and the resulting stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, and social isolation compromise the sufferer’s health and well-being. It is important, therefore, to identify the experiences of bed bug infestations as a public health threat.
Canada’s growing bed bug problem is part of an international growing bed bug problem. Success in Canada – whether it is Manitoba, Ontario or British Columbia – will require a co-ordinated support network at all levels of government. The success of that network will lie in how the problem is defined. Recognizing the overwhelming negative health outcomes resulting from dealing with a bed bug infestation moves the bed bug problem from the rank of a nuisance pest to a public health risk. This is a necessary step in the development of effective policies and procedures to combat bed bugs and provide support to those most vulnerable to bed bug attacks.