Its name comes down from the old Anglo-Saxon word for a spirit that creeps out at night to feed on human blood - bugge. Cursed in literature and memorialized in nursery rhymes, it was still going strong as late as the 1930s, when modern chemicals almost wiped it out. But not quite.
We're talking about the bedbug. Over the past decade, this medieval plague has returned with a vengeance. Throughout Canada and the U.S., rapidly growing infestations have been found in most major cities.
Precise numbers are difficult to tie down. Hotels are reluctant to report outbreaks for fear of lost business. And homeowners are often too embarrassed to seek help.
But municipal authorities in New York City received 24,000 complaints in 2010, and that actually dropped the metropolis two places in the top 50 list of U.S. infestations.
Until recently Canada lagged slightly, but it appears our turn is next.
Toronto had 2,270 infestation reports in 2010, narrowly topping Vancouver's total of 1,944. Those figures represent a 10-fold increase in just a few years.
Even in Victoria, hotels have been infected: One brought in bug-sniffing dogs to locate a possible outbreak.
There have been sightings at the University of Victoria - student residences are a common target - and at public-housing estates in town.
Experts are divided over the cause. Some point to the decision in the 1970s to withdraw the insecticide DDT because of its harmful effects on the environment. Bedbugs began their recovery shortly after that.
The huge increase in airline travel over the last three or four decades has likely played a part as well - bedbugs hitch rides in luggage and shipping containers.
And complacency is certainly a factor. The hospitality sector has let down its guard. And most of us wouldn't know a bedbug if we saw one.
Yet if the cause is somewhat unclear, the consequences are anything but. Bedbugs are a misery to get rid of.
Contemporary insecticides are only moderately effective, because some bugs have developed immunity. Even then, chemical sprays affect only the adults, leaving caches of eggs untouched. That means several treatments are required to wipe out successive hatches, often at significant cost.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority is experimenting with mobile heating units that kill both adults and eggs by raising the surrounding air temperature to around 50C. These units are effective in confined spaces like bedrooms, but can be expensive and awkward if an entire house requires purging.
Prevention, rather than cure, is by far the preferred solution, but that's easier said than done. There's an age-old belief that poor hygiene is involved. Not so.
Bedbugs aren't interested in badly stored or leftover food. Vacuuming may catch a few, but they hide under baseboards and mattresses. Washing bed linen helps, but won't roll back an invasion.
If you're staying in a hotel, place your suitcase out of reach on a hard, elevated surface like a coffee table. When you get home, put your travel clothes through a hot wash cycle right away.
And be on the lookout. Bedbugs are the size and shape of apple seeds. Their bites create a small red mark on the skin, and blood stains may be found on bed linen.
But the real problem is that government agencies have their heads in the sand. The B.C. Health Ministry says bedbugs aren't a public health concern, because they don't spread infectious diseases. That seriously understates the human impact.
There may be no threat to life and limb here. But something just as important is at stake - our sense of wellbeing and the comfort of our homes.
We need a co-ordinated, well-funded campaign to stamp out this epidemic, and we need it now.
© Copyright 2013