By Tracy Pham
As October was beginning, news outlets such as The Washington Post and Tampa Bay Times unexpectedly published articles on an outbreak of indescribably gruesome, flesh-eating, larvae in Florida. The federal Agriculture Department’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the Screwworm infestation in a subspecies of common white-tailed deer in Florida’s Keys. Screwworms are flying maggots that burrow themselves into a host, feed off their skin, and lay hundreds of eggs to survive and repopulate. The state needs to prioritize eradication in order to protect warm blooded creatures, prevent a potential epidemic, and fend off a large scale livestock depletion that has devastated America before.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, pregnant females burrow themselves deeper inside a wound where they prepare to lay hundreds of their eggs and “if untreated, screwworm infestations can be fatal”. To avoid further spread and population decline, the wildlife refuge manager told the Associated Press about 40 of the deer that were killed or euthanized. The spread has not gotten to any humans yet, but that does not mean it is not a possibility. In 2007, a twelve year old was victim to screwworms after vacationing in Colombia. After complaints of pain in her scalp, she was rushed to the hospital where the doctors revealed 142 screwworms in her head. Even more disturbingly, the surgeons used a technique called “bacon therapy,” in which they used meat and petroleum jelly to attract the larvae and remove them.
Agriculture officials have told news outlets that the longer eradication is delayed, the more likely screwworms will spread to other parts of the country. Screwworms only travel about 125 miles by themselves, but their reliance on others for transportation creates endless host opportunities and makes dense populations in Southern Florida a safety hazard. Most cases of screwworms arise from imported dogs or horses, but many cases of traveling pets have arisen. Screwworms are also know to plant themselves in newborn mammals through the eyes, mouth, sinuses, and other body openings. In addition to those unruly traveling methods, the rate of production increases the risk of waiting. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, a single female may lay up to 400 eggs at once and 2,800 during their lifetime. Once those eggs hatch, the larvae will screw themselves deeper into the host and feed for days before leaving and pupating. At that constantly increasing rate of reproduction and ability to attach itself to travelers, no one in the area is safe.
Past devastation also contributes to the threat of Screwworms. At the beginning of the 1960s, almost 52,000 cases of Screwworms were reported. During that period, the New York Times revealed “they infested and killed an elderly woman in San Antonio who could not get help nor care for herself”. Human cases are not likely, but they are more than possible. To further put their influence into perspective, later that decade, the US Department of Agriculture estimated the extinction of screwworms saved the livestock industry nine hundred million dollars. During the decade of screwworms, farmers were terrified because their livestock was in the hands of the flying larvae. One rancher told PBS news, “it’s been more than five decades since the screwworm infested Florida, and I’ve grown up hearing the horror stories from the last occurrence”. Farmers have passed the Screwworms stories down to their children.
There is nothing to fear. This is not the first case of screwworms in America and the government has managed to keep them away for fifty years. They used the fertile fly plan to raise millions of sterile males to cut off offspring. Through an overdose of gamma and X-rays, there were no traces of female reproductive behaviors. As of now, no human cases have been reported and pets traveling through the affected areas are being thoroughly screened by experts.
Nevertheless, there is no bullet proof way to ensure Screwworms will never enter the US again. For now, it is crucial that the authorities focus their effort to quarantine Screwworm to protect warm blooded mammal, such as ourselves, prevent a potential plague, and stop the stress Screwworms have put on America’s livestock in the past.
California Drug and Food Administration. (2016, October). Screwworm. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from https://www.cdfa.ca.gov
Guarino, B. (2016, October 04). Screwworm outbreak in Florida deer marks first U.S. invasion of the parasite in 30 years. Retrieved November 07, 2016, from http://www.tampabay.com/
Hayden, J., & Cole, L. (2016, October 03). USDA confirms new world screwworm in Big Pine Key, Florida. Retrieved November 07, 2016, from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/
Norris, C. (2016, October 13). Screwworm in the US. Retrieved November 07, 2016, from http://www.thegoatspot.net/
Pagan, J. (2016, October 19). Concerns over screwworm invasion extend to SWFL. Retrieved November 07, 2016, from http://www.nbc-2.com/
Header image from The Atlantic.