Friday, 9 December 2016

Eaten by Maggots - A True and Personal Experience

I don't blame you if you don't believe this, but it's true. I should have taken a photo but I was by myself and I was too busy wailing and shaking. So this is neither about fluff or about nonsense, but there it is. An inappropriate post!
Public Domain Image, Wikepedia

It felt like something chomping away inside my left thigh and it hurt. My doctor couldn't imagine what the strange swelling was; it was shaped rather like a pyramid but without definable edges. To my horror, my doctor looked slightly amused when I suggested I had brought back an illegal immigrant from my West African holiday. 'There are two little puncture holes here,' she added, pointing to the tip of the swelling. Only later did I learn the purpose of those two tiny Vampire-like punctures - and it wasn't pleasant.

I'll give you some antibiotics,' she said, 'and we'll keep an eye on it. If it doesn't disperse, you can go to the Tropical Diseases Hospital in London.'

Of course, I shouldn't have gone to Africa in the rainy season, the season of mosquitoes and malaria, and of other insects crazy for a blood-meal or a nice piece of human flesh suitable to use as a nursery. I'm susceptible to all insect bites; even here in England mosquitoes bring me out in huge, itchy swellings. But I had never seen anything like this. My thigh had swollen so much it even showed under my skirt.

At home, in my flat in East Sussex, I started taking the pills, waiting anxiously for the swelling to reduce. Instead, another swelling appeared on my stomach, in the waist-line area. Then two more popped up on my bottom. I reassured myself there was no reason to panic. There are all manner of stinging flies in Africa and some only cause blistering which then disappears. Besides, I had my antibiotics.

Around ten days after my return from The Gambia, the swellings hadn't dispersed and it seemed the antibiotics just weren't working. I decided I'd have to go to the London hospital, but our train services are always problematic on Sundays. Around lunchtime, I sat down and started to squeeze the largest swelling on my thigh. A soft, very dense yellowish matter started to appear. I felt elated that perhaps I could rid my body of this filthy thing, so I pressed harder and harder. In seconds my worst fears were realised as a fat, white larva slipped out of me. It lay there, on my leg, wriggling its plump, oval body, completely symmetrical and segmented and tapering to a point at each end, where a small, black, spiky protruberance stuck out back and front. The creature was just over half a centimetre long.

I can vividly recall my utter revulsion. I don't remember whether I screamed, but I grabbed a box of tissues, noticing as I did, that I could just see the skeletal outline of the developing fly inside the transparent but whitish oval. In a moment, the ghastly thing was squashed and then I carefully shook the contents of the tissue into a small tin and there seemed hardly anything there. So I drew an illustration to show the doctor the shape and size.

With my small tin and drawing, I set off to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. There were no tropical disease specialists available, but the young doctor who saw me scanned and emailed the drawing and information to the Tropical Diseases Hospital in London, while I waited outside. When she called me back into surgery, she told me my stowaway was an unpleasant but harmless tumbu fly.

The tumbu is an unremarkable-looking little brown fly with a sinister lifestyle. It lays its eggs on washing hanging out to dry, or maybe on a damp or soiled place on the beach. On contact with human skin, the eggs hatch, and the larvae burrow into whatever body is now wearing the contaminated clothing. The creature's mouthparts point inwards, but it breathes through its tail end, and that's the reason for the two little vampire-like puncture holes. It was, also, the cause of the internal pain as the larva was eating me from inside.

I learned a good remedy. You put Vaseline over the puncture holes and cover them with waterproof plaster. The larvae need to breathe and they struggle to the surface for air, and that way can be extracted. Fortunately, tumbu larvae are not life-threatening and don't move around the body or invade any organs. Even so, I was desperate to banish the other swellings on my body. I followed directions smearing on Vaseline, and then covering the swellings with plasters. Later I was able to see a doctor with relevant experience who gave me some new antibiotics fit for purpose. He assured me if I killed any of my maggots by trying to extract them, the tablets would disperse both infection and larvae corpses.

To my relief, it worked and the swellings slowly began to reduce. I was overjoyed that I no longer carried such filthy things inside my body.
If you want to go to West Africa, avoid the rainy season and pack a good supply of insect-repellents. Also, a travel-iron.


  1. There is not enough Vaseline in the world to smear this out of my mind. I read in horror but couldn't stop until I knew you were maggot-free. What a story! Thanks for this Janet, it's probably the most unusual thing I'll read for some time to come. Hope you are well and of course aparasitical these days. There is a limit to hospitality and I believe you have exceeded it.

    1. Jill, you do make me laugh. I tend not to relate this story as it's so annoying when people say, "Yeah... Right!" I was truly gutted when that well-paying magazine turned me down,but I guess that's a writer's life.