A maggot in the skull

September 17, 2009 • 10:17 am

As I posted previously, during a grad-school trip to Costa Rica I was parasitized by a botfly larva, which took up residence in my head before burrowing out several months later.  It was a mentally and physically transformative experience: I one step down on the food chain, and my own flesh converted into that of a fly!

Today’s New York Times has a piece about (and a video by) by filmmaker Vanessa Serrao, who picked up one of these beasts — also in her head — on a trip to Belize.

About a month after her trip, Ms. Serrao, 33, noticed a raised and oozing bump on her head. A doctor offered antibiotics because it appeared to be an infected bite. But as she was leaving the doctor’s office, Ms. Serrao mentioned that she had recently been in Central America. She had heard stories about botflies — Dermatobia hominis — a hairy fly that uses a mosquito as a vector to deposit larvae under human skin.

“Then the doctor looked with a magnifying glass,” Ms. Serrao said. “And she said, ‘Yes, there is something living in there.’ ”

Here’s her video, which perfectly displays the same combination of fascination and horror that I felt while harboring my own little grub.  Her urge to have the thing removed mystifies me, though: it’s much safer to let it come out on its own, and of course a natural exit makes for a better ending!

WARNING: not for the squeamish.

If you haven’t listened to the piece that Robert Krulwich did for RadioLab on my botfly, a piece that with judicious editing turned into a hilarious tale, you can listen to it here.  And, in the end, I guess I badly needed to suffer that pain!

24 thoughts on “A maggot in the skull

  1. This was Attenborough’s argument when asked why he wasn’t a theistic sycophant. Albeit, a different parasite.

    “The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent …”

  2. Our cat Isabelle was infected with a botfly when she was a kitten. She was born in the farm cat population at my in laws. My wife was looking to bring another kitten (Precious) home with her, but she also took Isabelle because she was wounded and sickly. The idea was to give Isabelle away after she got better, but it never happened and we have two cats.

    That population of farm cats was interesting because Isabelle had the same male relative for several generations back in her lineage. He (Big Yella Cat) was a really dominant tom. Precious was the first outbred kitten born in a long time and Isabelle was the last inbred kitten. Even after BYC died, it took about two generations of outbreeding before the female cats could produce more than 1 kitten per litter.

  3. It may take a special state of mind to be able to not interfere with the life cycle of a parasite living in or on one’s body, provided that there is no immediate danger to one’s life. I once sat thru & enjoyed a Neil Young concert with a deer tick attached to my back. The story is here.

    1. I once sat thru & enjoyed a Neil Young concert with a deer tick attached to my back.

      Oh NO! You had to endure Neil Young!
      🙂

  4. Safer? I don’t know how it got in there, but there’s a picture of a brain with a botfly larva inside the generous cavity it ate out of it.

    Then there’s the story about the guy who had two of them on his scrotum, which he had surgically removed after they caused continual shooting pain.

    Or the picture of a surgeon removing one from a person’s eye orbit, just to the side of the eyeball.

    None of those suckers will ever grow to maturity on *my* flesh.

      1. Oops, sorry about the HTML snafu and the misspelling. And I note that concatenating links isn’t very readable in this site’s format.

        The intended photo is available here.

  5. I don’t care if it might be safer to let it come out on it’s own there is now way I’d be able to let it. I’d be freaking out the whole time. I remember first learning about bot flies when I was maybe 12 years old and since then they’ve been up there on my worst nightmares list.

    I live on a farm and have picked up my share of parasites in the form of ticks, worms, etc. but that crosses a line for me.

  6. Have you ever considered that Earth considers US to be parasites living off its flesh?

    Imagine what the planet will do to get rid of us.

  7. I had one of these in my shoulder after a December trip to Belize in 2000.

    I thought it was a mosquito bite that I was reacting to badly and showed it to a doctor friend staying over for Xmas, who listed any number of possibilities from his little book of tropical diseases.

    I ended up popping it the next day and to my surprise a larvae come out. The doctor’s partner congratulated me for being “a wonderful host over Xmas”.

  8. Holy crap, I didn’t even realize that was YOU who told that botfly story on Radiolab. I had thought my respect for you couldn’t grow any more what with your book and constant defense of strident atheism, but suddenly it has grown more!

  9. Robert Krulwich is absolutely amazing at what he does. Thanks so much for reminding me of Radiolab — I haven’t listened in a while.

  10. I do some work with a feral cat management group and have seen many botfly infested kittens. C.emasculata larvae mostly. Mama botfly is attracted to the kitten pee smell and lays eggs in the kitten den. Fierce mama cats that get lots of prey and are sharp about getting first in line at at the taco trailer when they dump their waste in the alley behind the gas station are able to raise many kittens in spite of the botflies.

    Botflies keep their hosts clean. They know when their hosts are sleeping and poop well outside their fleshy lair. They also secrete an antibacterial mucus to prevent the botfly hole from becoming infected. Infection owuld lead to an immune response from the host that would kill the larva.

    I think we should examine botfly mucus to see if we can create new antibiotics. My gf has MRSA. I have to swab up with Bactroban when she has a flare up. While this mostly protects me, I’d rather see here cured by botfly-derived antibiotics. She might die from MRSA. I understand that MRSA deaths are about the same as HIV deaths.

    BTW, In Costa Rica the botflies are even more clever than C. emasculata of the temperate zones. These flies capture a mosquito that likes to bite large mammals andvlay their eggs on the mosquito. The mosquito delivers the larvae to the appropriate host. These flies show up every summer in Houston on people who travel to Central America and ther ae a few documented cases of secondary invection which means the flies have established a local population. It dies out every winter, as human botflies don’t seem to like our winter mosquitos.

    Global warming is real. Birds and bananas tell me so. Use to be you could get bananas down by the bay back in the 70s. I’ve got two huge banana buds hanging off the “decoravative” plant on the common element in front of my townhouse condo and I live an hour’s drive from Galveston Bay. Mexican whitewings are common and mourning doves are rare. Goldfinches have not wintered here for twenty years.

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