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A Second Woman Pulls Parasitic Eye Worms out of Her Eye, and Doctors Fear It’s Just the Beginning

©CDC

My husband likes to watch shows like Monsters Inside Me, and let me tell you – I’ve never been as paranoid to climb in a lake or take a hike in the tropics as I am after living with him for six years.

And this species of worm that infects human eyes seems like it would be as at home on that show as it is wriggling around in people’s corneas.

A case was recently documented in an issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases. The patient involved was a 68-year-old women from Nebraska who had recently run into a swarm of flies while jogging in California. It didn’t take doctors long to realize the flies must have been Musca autumnalis (face flies), because a month later, her eyes were itching, irritated…and housing parasites. Explains lead author Richard Bradbury,

“The vector fly will expel larvae onto the surface of the eye or the conjunctiva while feeding on lacrimal secretions (tears, etc). This can happen very quickly, so the fly would not have had to sit on the eye for more than a few seconds to expel the larvae. Normally people would shoo any flies near their eyes away before they could do this, but in this case the patient had run into so many flies at once that she could not shoo them all away before one expelled larvae onto her eye.”

She washed out the first worm with tap water, then found and took care of a second one a few days later. A day after that, she went to an ophthalmologist, who found a third one. She returned home, thinking all was well, but a few weeks later and still in discomfort, she found a fourth – and final – hitchhiker.

Bradbury and his team studied the worms and discovered they were members of Thelazia gulosa, or the cattle eye worm. Not only that, but the one they examined was an adult female with a cache of larvae-filled eggs of her own, which means (horrifyingly) that our eyes are perfect breeding grounds.

But the Nebraskan woman was actually the second known case.

In 2016, an Oregonian woman had 14 cattle eye worms extracted – she was the first known case – and Bradbury notes that while the women were both lucky to suffer no after-effects, cattle are usually left with damaged or blind eyes.

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Swipe left for video An Oregon woman has become the first person worldwide known to have had an eye infestation by a tiny #worm species previously seen only in cattle. #AbbeyBeckley, now 28, was working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska in the summer of 2016 when she felt something behind her eyelid two weeks into the trip. When she got to shore five days later, she tried to dig out what she assumed to be an eyelash, but discovered inflamed skin and a wriggling worm. Confused, she went to an eye doctor, who pulled out four more worms – but had no idea what it was. Eventually, she was transferred to an eye specialist in Portland, who sent off samples to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concluding that she had contracted Thelazia gulosa, a #parasite never seen in humans that is spread by flies that feed on eyeball lubrication. My left eye just got really irritated and red, and my eyelid was droopy,' Beckley, who was 26 at the time, told CNN. 'I was getting migraines too, and I was like, "What is going on?"' She eventually found a mirror, lifted her eyelid up and was stunned to pull out a worm. 'I pulled down the bottom of my eye and noticed that my skin looked weird there. So I put my fingers in with a sort of a plucking motion, and a worm came out! 'I was just in shock. I ran into my crewmate Allison's room, and I said, "I need you to see this! I just pulled a worm out of my eye!" 'I looked at it, and it was moving. And then it died within about five seconds.' total, 14 translucent Thelazia gulosa worms, all less than half an inch long, were extracted from Beckley's eye over the course of 20 days. This species of Thelazia worm was previously seen in cattle throughout the northern United States and southern Canada, the researchers reported in a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. They said the study indicates that North Americans may be more vulnerable than previously understood to such infections. If the worms remain in a person's eye for a prolonged time, they can cause corneal scarring and even blindness, according to the researchers. #eyeworm #parasitic #Thelaziagulosa

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The emergence of two cases so close together suggests to doctors and researchers this could become a trend, according to Bradbury.

“While it may just be a fluke event that two cases have occurred within a year or two of each other, it does raise the possibility that something might have changed in the ecology of T. gulosa in the USA to cause it to start occasionally infecting humans.”

It’s possible that there has been an increase in the files and that their preferred habitat is widening, meaning that more animals populations in the country – and therefore, more humans – are being exposed. Bradbury thinks the next step is to study those animal populations and see if we can detect significant changes in face fly spread.

“It is also really important that anyone who thinks they might have worms in their eyes should go and see a qualified medical doctor for help. The doctor can arrange to send any worms recovered from the eye to a parasitology reference laboratory for identification to see if they are T. gulosa. This way, we can know if any more human infections like this happen.”

I don’t know about y’all, but I’ll be perfectly happy to never hear about this story every again.