SINGAPORE — A recent wave of bedbug infestations has gripped South Korea, after reports of outbreaks across Europe such as in the capital city of France and across the United Kingdom that have previously raised alarm.
In South Korea, the prime minister’s office launched a four-week campaign on Tuesday (Nov 7) consisting of pest control measures and inspections of public facilities due to a sudden resurgence of bedbugs, with around 30 reports of suspected infestations nationwide.
The small bug, which can cause itchy, red bumps across the skin with its bites, sparked panic last month in Paris, as people reported seeing bedbugs in public areas such as the Paris metro and cinemas.
Experts told TODAY that even though bedbugs have always been around, the rise in travel frequency since the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a global resurgence of infestations and it would be naive to expect that this will not happen in Singapore.
WHAT ARE BEDBUGS?
Bedbugs are small parasitic insects with a flat, oval body that can grow up to 7mm, or about the size of an apple seed.
Reddish-brown in colour, they are most active at night, when they feed on the blood of humans and animals.
That is why they are commonly found under mattresses or hiding around the edges of beds or bedframes usually made of wood or fabric, or the folds of chairs and sofas — where people are usually sleeping or sitting.
That is not to say that these are the only places where they hide. On the website of HealthHub by the Health Promotion Board, it is stated: “Unlike their name, bedbugs can be found in many other types of furniture and household items such as cushions or curtains.”
In the dark halls of cinemas, bedbugs have also been known to thrive, as shown by a few cases here in the past.
Exposed areas of the human body such as the neck, arms and legs are common targets for their bites, which can cause extremely itchy clusters of red bumps to form due to the anaesthetic and anti-clotting agent in the insect’s saliva.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States says that bedbug bites affect everyone in different ways, with some people never developing any visible sites of being bitten or having any reaction to the bite.
This makes it difficult to confirm that one has been bitten by a bedbug unless the insect is spotted or there are signs of an infestation, the US CDC states.
Apart from spotting a live bug, a tell-tale sign of infestation are reddish-brown blood streaks on mattresses when a bedbug is squashed, black spots that are its droppings, and the brown exoskeleton shells that the bugs shed.
Mr Hanz Rahim, general manager of pest-control firm Pestko SG, told TODAY that the eggs of bedbugs are typically white or transparent, and can be five times smaller than a rice grain.
Contrary to common associations of bedbug infestations with unhygienic settings, the insects are not attracted to grime or dust, he added. They can be found in areas such as hotels, cruise ships and planes.
HOW DO BEDBUGS TRAVEL OR SPREAD?
With its small body and an ability to remain hidden for long periods of time — bedbugs can survive without a blood meal for a few months — they are spread when people carry them while they hide on clothing or in the seams of luggage.
The US CDC said: “Most people do not realise that they are transporting stow-away bedbugs as they travel from location to location, infecting areas as they travel.”
Bedbug infestations are not a new phenomenon, but the easing of travel restrictions after the Covid-19 pandemic have made it easier for bedbugs to spread worldwide as they hitch rides with unsuspecting travellers.
The National Agency for Food, Environmental and Workplace Safety (Anses), a health authority in France, said in July this year that more than one in 10 French households had seen bedbug infestations between 2017 and 2022.
It also reported at the time that the surge in bedbug infestations in recent years could be primarily attributed to the rise in travel and the increasing resistance of bedbugs to pesticides formulated to kill them. Bedbugs cannot be killed by common household insecticides sold in supermarkets, for instance.
WILL SINGAPORE SEE A RISE IN INFESTATIONS?
Experts told TODAY that with the easing of travel restrictions and Singapore’s status as a global transit hub, the spread of infestations would be something to watch out for in the meantime.
Ms Nicole Zycinski-Singh, managing director of pest control firm Killem Pest, said that the company has noticed an increase in bedbug enquiries in recent weeks, and the company has stepped up its efforts to inform customers about integrating bedbug inspections as part of its routine pest control services, especially in areas such as hotels, public transport, school and healthcare centres.
In response to TODAY’s queries on whether Singapore could be susceptible to similar infestations such as those in other countries of late, the Singapore Pest Management Association said: “As a global transit, the risk of Singapore travellers returning with bedbugs is a reality that we have to be prepared for, with the possibility of bedbugs being spread to home premises or public transportation.”
Agreeing, Mr Eddie Koh, director of Greencare Pest Control and Cleaning, another pest control company, said that Singapore is not immune to a potential bedbug infestation and attributed the sudden surge in bedbugs in other countries to a boom in tourism since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Hadi Isnin, owner of Multiverse Pest Control, said that bedbugs are “good hitchhikers”, and most of the infestations he is called to deal with originate from “imported cases” — households that have people who have returned from abroad.
Similarly, Ms Karen Harichan, director of pest control company 3000Immunity, said that active travellers can end up with bedbugs hiding in their pockets or bags without them knowing.
“You don’t need to travel overseas. You can take home a bedbug even while you are on a bus, taxi or train here. You won’t know it until they bite you.”
Mr Koh from Greencare Pest Control and Cleaning said that bedbugs are common here even though they are often well-managed and affect just a minority of people.
Some of the pest controllers also said that they commonly see bedbug infestations in rented houses such as those with tenants from overseas or international students. These dwellings tend to be more highly populated and have tenants who frequently travel.
Mr Hanz from Pestko SG said that he has handled up to 15 appointments in a week for cases of bedbug infestation, most of which tend to be for houses rented by foreigners with shared living space and sleeping quarters, who may have unknowingly brought back bedbugs from other countries in their bags or luggage during travel.
Mr Hadi from Multiverse Pest Control said that he commonly gets calls to tackle bedbug infestations in houses that are rented or left vacant in between a change of tenants. Some of the calls are from repeat clients after new tenants have moved in to the space.
The Singapore Pest Management Association said: “We advise travellers to exercise extra caution and check their belongings for signs of infestation, (and also for) operators of ports of entry such as airports and airline operators to carry out necessary checks on passengers and during flight turnovers.”
HOW TO TREAT BEDBUG BITES
The fear of an infestation and the panic and distress of dealing with one can exert “a huge emotional toll” for people who may feel uneasy and unable to rest in their own homes or even too fearful to sleep.
HealthHub’s website states that the treatment for bug bites, should treatment even be required, is straightforward.
“Patients rarely develop complications, and for most cases, symptomatic treatment in the form of topical steroids or oral antihistamines can relieve the itch quickly.”
HOW TO GET RID OF BEDBUGS EFFECTIVELY
Tackling the infestation, on the other hand, requires decisive intervention because bedbugs can multiply quickly and be increasingly hard to deal with as the numbers rise.
A heavy infestation is telling because there will be a sweet, musty odour in the house.
Mr Jason Cheong, technical manager at pest control firm Pestopia, said that one pregnant bedbug can lay eggs that will turn into around 70 adults and nymphs in just two months, and also lay another 50 unhatched eggs.
Mr Hadi from Multiverse Pest Control said: “Some (people) don’t necessarily have any side effect to a bedbug’s bite so they may tend to ignore and forgo a (pest-busting) treatment.
“The later you seek treatment, the harder (it is) for pest management to treat and eradicate these bedbugs.”
Although the bugs are not drawn to dirt and grime, good housekeeping can help one to guard against bedbug infestations, the experts said.
Avoiding clutter, as well as sealing gaps between wire trunking in flats can also give bedbugs fewer places to hide, Mr Hadi said. Wire trunking are the narrow white plastic casing, for example, that run along walls used to hide cables — also good hiding places for bedbugs.
He added that he would not recommend getting second-hand furniture because this carries the risk of infestation, especially if the prices of the items are “too good to be true”.
Even though people may do checks themselves such as examining clothing and carefully trying to eradicate bedbug eggs to manage or prevent infestations, Mr Hanz from Pestko SG warned that dealing with bedbugs on a do-it-yourself basis may have a limited effect, if the eggs are not fully removed or if all hiding places are not identified.
He has seen cases where bedbug infestations went unchecked for up to two years, with the affected homeowners often reluctant to call a pest control company due to a desire to save costs by managing the bugs on their own.
These infestations can be nipped in the bud if an expert is called at the first sign or sighting of the bugs.
Mr Hadi from Multiverse Pest Control typically offers two main treatments, one of which involves flushing out hiding bedbugs with heat. Hot temperature will kill bedbugs instantly.
People who have been in bug-infested places and suspect that their clothing may hide bedbugs are also advised to wash them in hot water.
Another treatment that Mr Hadi offers would be to concentrate on commonly affected areas such as mattresses, pillows, wire trunking and bed frames, which will be disinfected.
The walls in the affected rooms will be misted with pesticide, which will residually infect the bugs over time as they come out, usually during the night.
For people returning from abroad, Mr Cheong from Pestopia recommended that travellers check every item of clothing before putting it in a luggage case and wash all clothes with hot water that is at least 50°C.
Those who want to be doubly sure may also consider using bedbug detection devices such as the TruDetx Bed Bug Rapid Test, which is rather similar to a rapid antigen test for Covid-19, Mr Koh from Greencare Pest Control and Cleaning said.
Envu, the developer of this rapid test, states on its website that users take a cotton swab to swipe against areas where bedbugs hide and results of the bugs’ presence can be known in five minutes after soaking the swab in a test solution and dropping four drops of the solution onto a test strip.