by Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist
The damage and devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew is still fresh on everyone’s minds, especially those that live along the East Coast. Unfortunately, the natural disaster also brought about another source of damage: the screwworm. Once upon a time many years ago, the screwworm infested Florida and caused deadly infections in livestock and wildlife throughout the panhandle. Currently, the screwworm is largely occupying the Keys off the coast of Florida and animals are being checked as they enter/leave the keys. The article that surfaced sparked my interest and I had to look further into this issue. I will describe to you the origination of the screwworm, its hosts and how it affects them, as well as eradication efforts.
The screwworm is a maggot that derives from the blowfly. Blowflies deposit the eggs into the wound of a warm-blooded mammal (human or animal) and thus begin the infestation of the flesh-eating screwworm. The more flies that land in the wound, the more disgusting the wound becomes, thus inviting many other flies to the site. After they have engorged themselves for about a week, they fall off the mammal onto the ground and continue their life cycle in the soil. The screwworm is most commonly found in tropical or subtropical areas of the U.S. such as Florida, Texas and California where the winters are very mild. About 30 years ago, the Florida panhandle experienced a very large breakout of screwworms and had to take desperate measures to protect their livestock (I don’t know how many cattle farms are in Florida, but it is more than a couple). To protect their livelihood, farmers began to make sure calves dropped in the coldest months so that they could avoid a screwworm infestation.
As I previously mentioned, the screwworm seeks out warm-blooded mammals, either humans or animals. Animals begin to show discomfort and scratch feverishly at their open wounds that are now infected by these worms. It is unknown what caused the infestation of the screwworm but officials are not taking it lightly. A state of emergency has been declared through December 26 in Florida. Animals are being thoroughly inspected before leaving or entering the Keys. No human cases have been confirmed at this time, but humans are just as susceptible if the infestation is not eradicated soon. Many deer and livestock have been euthanized in hopes to control the screwworm population.
The first step to eradication is to get a jump on any wound that is forming on humans or animals. It is important to keep the wound bandaged at all times and begin antibiotics. Animals should be inspected daily so that a wound may be spotted before it is too late. The USDA tried to manipulate the native flies by introducing laboratory engineered sterile flies to decrease the population of screwworms. They saw some positive feedback, but native flies were still seeking wounds to lay eggs and the problem was not entirely eradicated. The best way to eradicate is to educate. The USDA has found that if they educate farmers, ranch hands, veterinarians, and other wildlife technicians, they will eventually eliminate any possible environment suitable for the screwworm.
I tell you this graphic information in case you travel to Florida or come into contact with someone that has been to Florida recently. Some people travel to the Keys to hunt the Key deer, which are one of the major hosts of the screwworm. It is best to wear gloves at all time while cleaning deer, but even more so if you are in Florida. I have attached some rather gruesome pictures, but they are very educational for those of us that have never come into contact with this flesh eating maggot.
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