South Korea has become the latest country to declare war on bedbugs following a wave of outbreaks, with bathhouses, university dorms, and train stations across the country on high alert.
Thirty suspected or confirmed infestations have been reported since the end of October, prompting the government to announce a four-week campaign aimed at eradicating the bloodsucking pests.
Previously, the country had been practically free of bedbugs following past extermination campaigns, with just nine infestations being reported to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention (KDCA) since 2014.
The sudden resurgence of the pests, which follows reports of similar outbreaks in France and the United Kingdom and an increase in cases in the United States, is spreading alarm among members of the public, with social media awash with pictures and accounts of people’s encounters with the insects.
Pest control firms have reported being inundated with requests for help while some websites have created dedicated sections to the problem, offering users a place to share tips on how to deal with the pests, with suggestions ranging from avoiding the cinema to standing on public transport.
Some of the comments reflect both the fear and confusion of a public that has largely not needed to deal with the pests for many years.
“Should I throw away all electronics if I spot a bedbug,” asked a user on one website, while another wondered: “If I put double-sided tape around my mattress, would that stop the bugs getting on me?”
Another said simply: “I’d rather have the Covid than bedbugs.”
Fear of stigma
The current outbreak is likely to get worse before it gets better, say experts, who believe that driving some of the concern is peoples’ fear of being stigmatized if they are bitten.
While bedbugs do not spread diseases, the itching from their bites can cause a loss of sleep and secondary skin infections if people scratch them too hard. Being bitten by one of the insects – which are less than 1 cm (0.3 inch) in diameter – can also be seen as socially embarrassing.
“It’s unclear, at this moment, if the number of bedbug cases will increase but some individuals may hesitate to report them to the government due to concerns over being stigmatized for hygiene reasons,” said a government official, who asked not to be named so they could speak to the media, following a crisis meeting on Tuesday that involved 17 metropolitan cities, provincial governments and relevant ministries.
The official mentioned that the government is currently collaborating with private pest control companies to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation as some individuals might be reluctant to report cases directly to authorities, fearing negative impacts on their businesses or reputations.
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So concerned has the South Korean government become that it is expediting the import of new types of pesticide in case those already available in the country are not strong enough to do the job.
Meanwhile, pest control companies say they have become inundated with phone calls asking for help.
“We received less than five calls a year related to bedbugs before, but nowadays, we get two to three calls every day,” said Eom Hae-won, the CEO of Incheon-based pest control firm Choa Clean.
Because the country has had so few outbreaks in recent years local companies are not as experienced in eliminating the pests and the available pesticides are not as effective, he said.
“So, we are collecting bedbugs for research and experimentation purposes,” Eom added.
Seoul searching for bedbugs
In the capital of Seoul, the city government is launching a new “Bedbug Reporting and Management System” and a “Zero Bedbugs City, Seoul” initiative, under which it says it will inspect 3,175 lodging facilities, bathhouses, and jjimjilbangs (Korean saunas with rooms of varying temperatures).
“These special inspections will continue through the year-end holiday season, particularly in areas with a high concentration of accommodation and bathhouses, which are popular among foreign residents,” the city government said in a press release.
The city has said it will also provide pest control support for small housing units known as jjokbang or gosiwon, which typically measure around 3-6 square meters (30-60 square feet) and house some of Seoul’s poorest residents.
Other areas deemed high-risk include subways and cinemas. The government says its campaign will include periodic steam-cleaning of subway seats.
“While bedbugs do not transmit diseases, they are pests that cause discomfort, allergies, and psychological as well as economic harm due to their blood-feeding habits,” said Park Yoo-mi, a senior health official in Seoul.
How to beat the bugs
Lee Si-hyeock, professor of Agricultural Biotechnology at Seoul National University, said his researchers had seen strong resistance to insecticide “even if they are soaked in the solution with high concentration.”
“The issue of bedbug resistance requires attention, but it hasn’t been receiving much attention until now.”
While the country has been largely free of bedbugs in recent years, it was not entirely so, said Lee Hee-il, division director of Vectors and Parasitic Disease, at the KDCA.
He suggested that factors behind the outbreaks could include the increase in post-Covid travel and the insects’ growing resistance to pest-control measures.
“Bedbugs are developing resistance to the insecticides that we commonly use, so the most effective solution these days is heating. It turns out that a temperature of about 45 degrees Celsius can kill the bugs and the eggs,” Lee said.
He said using a dryer or an iron could be an effective method for eliminating bedbugs and their eggs from fabric.
“It’s widely recognized that completely eradicating bedbugs is a challenging task, so the best approach is to prevent them from entering your home,” he said. “Early and proactive responses are crucial.”
In its “Bedbug Prevention and Response Guidelines,” the Seoul City Government advises people against bringing items with a risk of infestation into their homes. It says high risk items include used furniture and old books.
“Repairing damaged areas such as cracks and wallpaper can minimize potential bedbug habitats,” it adds.