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.”
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.
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).
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.
"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,” said Lee Si-hyeock, professor of Agricultural Biotechnology at Seoul National University.
He said using a dryer or an iron could be an effective method for eliminating bedbugs and their eggs from fabric.
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.