Bed bugs, once thought to be extinct, have had resurgence in Canada, England, Australia, and the U.S., feasting on their human prey by night. Although only 4 millimeters long, they can hide in the crevices of a bed, in electrical outlets, and have been known to hitch a ride on people’s clothing. These pesky little creatures are also all-but impossible to get rid of and the recent epidemic is considered one of the biggest of its kind since WWII.
By M. Godoy

ver heard the rhyme, “Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”? Dating from the late 19th century, this bedtime verse’s tone has recently undergone a subtle shift from innocent to ominous. North America, Europe, and Australia are all battling outbreaks of bedbugs whose numbers seem to be increasing exponentially. And, a peek on any travel blog will reveal that South America is no more immune to these pests than its Northern and European counterparts. Indeed, this problem is so widespread that some are beginning to refer to it as a pandemic.

How can something so small – bedbugs are at most 7 millimeters in length, weighing next to nothing – cause such a disturbance worldwide? The reason is that bedbugs, or Cimex lectularius, can keep living up to three months without any sort of blood meal. Bedbugs are flat, brown, flightless, blood-sucking insects who will first inject you with an anesthetic before proceeding to feast on your body while you sleep. Adding to their creepiness is their ability to remain hidden.

People whose homes have become infested with bed bugs are often woken up in the middle of the night scratching madly, and when morning comes it’s difficult to locate the source of that midnight misery. This is because bedbugs are so tiny that they can hide from sight in any crevice or crack in a mattress, box spring, headboard, or really, anywhere within eight feet of your bed. Bed bugs can easily be mistaken for a piece of mattress lint, and are consequentially overlooked.

The indicators that someone has a bedbug problem are sometimes hard to read. There are, of course, the annoying bites, however, individual reactions to these bites range from mild to severe, and may not necessarily be noticed until as many as fourteen days after the initial bite. Additionally, you might notice little copper blood marks on your sheets from the insects’ excretion. Usually by the time that the signs of infestation are obvious enough to inspire some sort of reaction, the bedbugs will be well and truly settled in your home.

As one might imagine, getting rid of these resilient pests can be quite an undertaking. This has been the recent focus of bedbug summits across North America, including one held by the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency in April 2009, and, more recently, an event in Toronto that attracted a wide range of participants including politicians. These types of summits are unprecedented, an indicator of the current bedbug infestation’s enormity. They are well attended, in part, because there is money to be made off this influx of bedbug invasions, with exterminations costing between $400 and $900. Moreover, this process often needs repeating.

Since extermination is so costly, it’s no wonder that people in cities such as New York, Toronto, and London, where outbreaks are widespread and well-covered by the media, are extremely paranoid about contracting bedbugs. Once someone has a bedbug infestation, a whole list of problems usually follows.

Take Ally for example. Ally is an outgoing university student who is currently finishing her final year of studies in Canada. She consistently bounces back from stressful times. However, spirited as she is, she was the first to admit that her encounter with bedbugs was an ordeal that left her emotionally, physically, and financially drained. As well, in exchange for sharing her experience she’s asked me to change her name for this story, the outcome being too much to bear publicly. Bedbugs: 1. Ally: 0.

Ally didn’t really register the first signs of the bedbug infestation. “I recall having weird bites back when I lived on N. Street, but I didn’t know what they were and it wasn’t that much. It might have not even been bedbugs, it might have been fleas.” However, a change of apartments didn’t put an end to the bites and itching and she was forced to face the matter again, because the “apartment wasn’t located in a nice area, and the bites started getting more recurrent. I had to ask a friend if he knew anything about it, because I didn’t know. He told me it was bedbugs.”

What followed next was any student’s nightmare. Ally, who was in the middle of end-of-term exams, confronted her landlord, who admitted that other tenants had been complaining of the same thing, and it was likely that the whole building was infested. The exterminator was called, the apartment fumigated, and Ally moved out as soon as she could. There was already too much lost, furniture thrown out on the curb and long sleepless nights, to risk another bout of pests.

For Ally it was the psychological effects that were the hardest to overcome. She felt traumatized from the experience, explaining that “I didn’t sleep in my bed for two weeks. … I felt violated.” Even in her new bedbug-free apartment, it has been hard to let go of the paranoia that took over, “When I moved out, it was really hard for me to fall asleep. I’m better now but if I feel any little itch, I’m like, ‘Please God, don’t let it be the bugs’.”

No one’s quite sure why bed bugs are back in such number. Some experts say it’s because of the increase in world travel, some say it’s due to a developed resistance to insecticides. What is clear, however, is the great inconveniences these tiny pests cause.

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