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S. Korea goes all-out to eradicate bedbugs as reports surge nationwide

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : Nov. 7, 2023 - 15:03

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A notice posted in an alley in a densely populated neighborhood in Seoul warns of bedbug infestations on Sunday. (Yonhap) A notice posted in an alley in a densely populated neighborhood in Seoul warns of bedbug infestations on Sunday. (Yonhap)

South Korea has launched a pangovernmental initiative to comprehensively combat the proliferation of bedbugs, fueled by a recent surge in reports of bedbug infestations and concerns over the pest spreading nationwide.

The Ministry of the Interior and Safety has taken the lead in assembling a pangovernmental task force, initiated last Friday, comprising ten relevant ministries and local governments.

The objective of this joint effort is to promptly and efficiently stop the spread of bedbugs by mobilizing each ministry's capabilities.

For example, the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency will share the current status of reports of and countermeasures for bedbugs, while the Ministry of Environment will share measures to manage the supply and demand of control products such as insecticides.

Following the announcement on the task force, the team decided to set up a bedbug infestation status board Monday. When a bedbug infestation is reported, the location and number of bedbugs found by region will be shown on the status board for monitoring, beginning Tuesday.

As additional harm could occur to facilities if it is made public that bedbugs were discovered there, the task force plans to decide later whether to publicly disclose the status board.

Yi Han-kyung (right), chief of the disaster management office at the Interior and Safety Ministry, presides over the first emergency response meeting of the pangovernmental task force to prevent the spread of bedbugs at the Government Complex Sejong, Friday. (Ministry of the Interior and Safety) Yi Han-kyung (right), chief of the disaster management office at the Interior and Safety Ministry, presides over the first emergency response meeting of the pangovernmental task force to prevent the spread of bedbugs at the Government Complex Sejong, Friday. (Ministry of the Interior and Safety)

In the meantime, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency met with pest control companies and pest experts on Monday to assess bedbug reports and discuss how to eradicate the parasites.

After the discussion, the KDCA concluded that bedbugs appearing in the country are highly resistant to pyrethroid insecticides, which are the most commonly available insecticides in Korea.

“In other countries, other insecticides are already widely used to eradicate bedbugs due to the resistance problem. The KDCA is in talks with the Ministry of Environment about the possibility of introducing alternative insecticides soon,” the KDCA said.

Studies show that bedbugs have developed unique ways to protect themselves from various insecticides. Pyrethroid products are no longer effective at killing bedbugs unless mixed with other products.

“The KDCA is set to examine samples of bedbugs captured nationwide by pest control companies and pest experts soon for further investigation,” the KDCA added.

According to the KDCA's "Bedbug Response Plan," a combination of methods -- such as high-temperature steaming, the use of a dryer, vacuum cleaning and chemical control such as pesticides -- should be used simultaneously if bedbugs are found in homes or accommodation facilities. When disposing of infested mattresses or other items, they must be treated with insecticide before discarding to prevent spread. As bedbugs can move and lay eggs, the infested area should be checked again seven to 14 days after treatment.

Local governments have also committed to controlling bedbugs by rolling out a comprehensive insect prevention scheme. Gyeonggi Province announced on Monday that it has launched a comprehensive bedbug prevention plan.

So far there have been no reports of bedbugs in Gyeonggi. Still, it has decided to conduct special preventative checks on bedbug-prone public facilities in the region, such as hotels, other types of accommodations, public saunas and bathhouses called “jjimjilbang.”

Other municipalities also announced their own measures. The Busan Metropolitan Government announced Friday that it would post instructions for bedbug prevention on the city's website, including relevant information for vulnerable facilities, starting Monday.

Also, the Seoul Metropolitan Government on Friday rolled out a comprehensive prevention scheme to achieve a “zero-bedbug city.” Under the measures, bedbug complaints can be reported by calling 120 or via a public health center in the neighborhood. The city’s district offices will then dispatch authorities to inspect reported infestations and treat them.

Seoul city plans to inspect 3,175 bedbug-prone public facilities, including hotels, accommodation facilities and public bathhouses, to assess bedding maintenance and sanitary conditions. Seoul is also set to treat with hot steam fabric seats on subways across the city regularly and eventually replace fabric seating with other safer materials.

According to local media, bedbugs were believed to be nearly eradicated by the 1970s following sweeping campaigns of trucks spraying the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, throughout South Korea, which is now banned worldwide for agricultural use. However, today's bedbugs are resistant to DDT, and have been found to adapt to acquire resistance to other insecticides as well.

The authorities believe that increased overseas travel following the waning of the pandemic and the lifting of travel restrictions may have affected the current outbreak of bedbugs in Korea.

Bedbugs do not transmit infectious diseases, but they feed on human blood mostly at night while people sleep, which can lead to symptoms such as skin rashes, severe itchiness or allergic reactions. The reddish-brown, wingless parasites usually hide during the day in places such as the seams of mattresses, inside the cracks or crevices in bed frames, behind wallpaper or among any other forms of clutter around a bed.