Worms in the eye? Why US doctors had to dig deep into history for clues

Sunday February 18 2018

Eye worms

Worms. Eye worms can cause blindness. FILE PHOTO 

A patient visiting an eye doctor complaining “I have worms in my eye” can invite scepticisms.

On August 2016, though, 28-year-old Abbey Beckley in the US state of Oregon looked at her irritated left eye in the mirror.

A translucent thin thread like worm wiggled, CNN reported her saying.

Why tell an old story? Doctors Beckley saw, initially sceptical, had no roadmap; no protocol. All they could do was flush the eye.

One team, though, had foresight to send some worms, all female and 11mm-long, to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, commonly known as CDC.

Last Monday, a CDC team at the Parasite Diagnostics Laboratory led by Richard Bradbury, published the findings.

Getting there wasn’t smooth sailing. The team had to dig microscopic pictures from a 1928 publication written in German to figure out the species.

“This is only the 11th time a person has been infected by eye worm in North America,” Dr Bradbury told the media.

So, what? “…what was really exciting is that it is a new species that has never infected people before. It’s a cattle worm that somehow jumped into a human.”

With that, Beckley, who had been an unhappy host to 14 worms in 20 days, and a species called Thelazia gulosa, entered the annals of medicine.

The media called on Beckley. It was news.

Incidentally, the other 10 victims in the United States were visited by a species called T.californeasis; in Europe and Asia, another, T.callipaeda, has done its bit.

As Beckley explained, as an outdoor person growing up in the US state of Oregon abundant with cattle and horses, she also developed a desire to travel.

A couple of weeks on a commercial salmon fishing boat in Alaska, visitation by Thelazia gulosa began.

There were eye irritation, reddish colour, droopy eyelid, and migraines.

Worse, the worms would hide, leading to worry they might craw into her brain. But her eyesight was fine, and remains so.

Eye worms are common among dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle.

They infect humans, mostly in rural areas and near these animals.

According to the CDC, the worms have a complicated life cycle. It revolves from eye flies to human eyes — plenty of protein there — and back to eye flies and back to human eyes.

The worms mostly infect the young and elderly, persons often lacking strength to swipe.

In the long run, their visitation can lead to blindness.

Thelazia gulosa, the CDC says, is endemic in North America, Europe, Central Asia and Australia.

Other than in Central Asia, husbandry standards in the other regions are high.

Globally, there are about 1.4 billion cattle. Africa has its share, most wandering in valleys, plains and ranges, some of their pastoralist owners half-blind.

The latter isn’t necessarily due to Thelazia gulosa infection, but plausibly so. Who has checked it out?

Need not worry? Thelazia gulosa isn’t the Ebola virus. Well, a collapse of a mighty dam begins with microscopic cracks.