Study provides evidence on bed bug burden in urban neighborhoods

In the first study to use systematically collected data from multifamily housing inspections to track bed bug infestation, investigators including Christopher Sutherland at the University of Massachusetts Amherst "confirm what has long been suspected for bed bugs, but also for public health issues in general" - infestations are strongly associated with socioeconomic factors, including neighborhood income, eviction rates and crowding.

Writing in People and Nature about their Chicago-area study, biostatistician Sutherland, with biologist Daniel Schneider and urban planner Andrew Greenlee, both of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, point out that documenting the scale of the bed bug's "dramatic resurgence" as a common household pest and identifying socioeconomic factors that determine infestation risk are challenging, because data usually come from self-reporting, which has potential for bias.

But "unlike previous research, our data come from systematic inspections with known sampling effort and are, therefore, uniquely able to attribute observed reductions to declines in bed bug prevalence rather than trends in reporting," they add.

Sutherland and colleagues say the evidence of higher risk of bed bug infestation in poorer neighborhoods, in areas where evictions are more common and in more crowded neighborhoods "provides important empirical evidence of the disproportionate allocation of public health burdens upon neighborhoods already facing multiple dimensions of disadvantage - for example, poverty, contaminated water and health inequalities."

Sutherland says he was surprised that the patterns were borne out so strongly. "It's discouraging that we still have these extreme polarities in society," he notes. "Differences in socioeconomic factors means that these public health burdens fall on groups that are less able to cope with them than their more affluent neighbors. We shine a light on yet another public health concern that points squarely to who is bearing the burdens."