Cimex lectularius, otherwise known as the common bedbug, is making a comeback, snuggling up with the homeless in Toronto shelters.
Several advocacy groups told the board of health at its meeting April 4 that bedbugs aren't just a nuisance but a serious health issue.
"People are scratching all night," says Anne Egger, a nurse practitioner at Regent Park Community Health Centre.
Hungry bedbugs feast on human blood. They live for up to a year and lay up to 500 eggs in the places where you eat and sleep. Reactions to their bites range from slight itching to welts with swelling and scabbing.
Chief among shelter workers' concerns is a report by U of T entomologist Tim Miles suggesting that the insects may play "a minor role" in transmitting hepatitis B.
The bugs currently plague at least a dozen homeless shelters and hostels, as well as non-profit housing units and women's shelters.
"The problem is very extensive," says Beric German, a health promotion worker at the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. "You've got a constant movement of people."
At All Saints Church Community Centre at Dundas and Sherbourne, bedbugs chased 900 clients out of their temporary home twice in the last year. It usually takes a minimum of three days to spray, and because of the infestation the centre lost books, clothes and dressers. The bill, about $20,000, had to come from funds to keep the building going.
How do you get rid of these bloodsuckers? Alternative approaches to chemicals include vacuuming, steam cleaning, laundering clothes and bedding, and putting plastic covers on mattress - all options the board agreed to explore, but not without some resistance.
For two years, Regent Park Community Health Centre has provided lotions, antibiotics, cortisone and antihistamines to help treat bite wounds. The city's hostel services organized a work group to monitor the infestations. But why isn't Toronto public health taking a more active role?
Well, because there's no proof that bedbugs are actually a health risk, according to board chair John Filion, who argued that it's the shelter, housing and support division's responsibility. "We have so many critical things to deal with," he says.
Board member Jane Pitfield disagreed. "This is a public health issue, not just a pest control problem."
Meanwhile, the board also agreed to screen shelter workers for TB after 12 had positive skin tests. There were eight cases of TB among homeless people using shelters this year.