This study delineates the broad extent of a recent resurgence of bed bug infestations in an urban environment. In light of anecdotal reports from other localities (5–10
), we believe that this phenomenon is likely occurring in cities across North America and Europe. The reasons for this resurgence are unknown, although some reports have suggested a role for increasing world travel, reluctance to use insecticides because of concerns regarding toxicity, and insecticide resistance (9,10
). Although initial reports in Toronto indicated that bed bug infestations were occurring primarily in homeless shelters, our study showed that bed bugs are found in a wide variety of locations in the urban environment, including single-family dwellings, apartments, and rooming houses.
Data from public health officials and pest control operators provided markedly different perspectives on the extent and localization of infestations. This difference may reflect a tendency for persons experiencing bed bug infestations in single-family dwellings to rely on pest control operators, whereas apartment dwellers and homeless shelter staff may be more likely to contact public health authorities. The Toronto experience indicates that these calls place a substantial time demand on public health personnel, who in many cities are already struggling with limited resources.
Our data suggest that bed bugs can spread from shelter to shelter, presumably transported in the personal belongings of residents. At an affected homeless shelter, 4% of residents reported having bed bug bites; given the constant turnover of shelter residents, bed bugs could potentially affect a large number of homeless people over the course of a year. In our clinical experience, homeless persons with bed bug bites suffer a substantial degree of emotional distress.
Infestations in shelters are difficult and costly to eradicate. Our observation of a high mean number of pest control treatments per affected location () points to the likelihood that infestations will be difficult to control in other communal living settings and in hotels. The pest control literature emphasizes the importance of combining insecticide treatments with environmental measures such as daily laundering of bed linens, vacuuming rooms, and steam cleaning and vacuuming mattresses. Bed bugs can be destroyed by freezing or by heat treatments at temperatures >50°C, but these methods are inconvenient to implement (9,10
Bed bug bites can result in clinical manifestations; the most common are small clusters of extremely pruritic, erythematous papules or wheals that represent repeated feedings by a single bed bug (1
). Less common but more severe manifestations include grouped vesicles, giant urticaria, and hemorrhagic bullous eruptions (11
). Bites should be managed symptomatically with topical emollients, topical corticosteroids, oral antihistamines, or some combination of these treatments.
Health professionals should be aware of this reemerging urban pest to facilitate prompt diagnosis of affected patients and treatment of the underlying environmental infestation. Bed bug bites must be differentiated from scabies, body lice, and other insect bites. Diagnostic clues include clustering and timing of bed bug bites. Unlike body lice, bed bugs are rarely found on affected persons or their clothing, and persons with good personal hygiene who enter an infested area are likely to be bitten.
Although bed bugs could theoretically act as a disease vector, as is the case with body lice, which transmit Bartonella quintana
(the causal agent of trench fever) among homeless persons (12
), bed bugs have never been shown to transmit disease in vivo (13
). Hepatitis B viral DNA can be detected in bed bugs up to 6 weeks after they feed on infectious blood, but no transmission of hepatitis B infection was found in a chimpanzee model (14–19
). Transmission of hepatitis C is unlikely, since hepatitis C viral RNA is not detectable in bed bugs after an infectious blood meal (18
). Live HIV can be recovered from bed bugs up to 1 hour after they feed on infected blood, but no epidemiologic evidence for HIV transmission by this route exists (20–22
This study has certain limitations. Shelter data were based on self-reports from staff at affected shelters. Although we obtained data from multiple informants at each shelter when possible, we did not independently verify the accuracy of these reports. Affected shelters represented 30% of shelter beds in Toronto, but our methods did not determine how many rooms or beds within each shelter were affected. Shelter residents' reports of having bed bug bites were not independently confirmed, and some of these persons may have had other types of insect bites or delusions of parasitosis. The method we used to survey pest control operators may have resulted in double-counting locations that obtained treatments for bed bugs from >1 pest control operator in 2003. As a result, the number of affected locations may be overestimated. Furthermore, the reliability of reports from pest control operators is uncertain. Finally, our results, based on calls to public health and pest control operators, reflect self-initiated complaints from affected locations and therefore do not provide population-based data on the prevalence of bed bug infestations.
In conclusion, our study documents the broad extent of bed bug infestations in an urban environment. This problem could have substantial adverse effect on health and quality of life, particularly among persons who use homeless shelters. Physicians should be aware of the typical dermatologic signs and symptoms of bed bug bites, which may become increasingly common in the future. Further research is needed to determine the geographic extent of the current reemergence of bed bugs in the industrialized world and the prevalence and risk factors for bed bug infestations in the general population, including those living in both congregate and noncongregate housing.