If being infested with maggots wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that they can carry bacteria that can be worse, even deadly. A 69-year-old French man apparently died of just such a bacterial infection, according to a recently published report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
The man was found unconscious in a forested area near Tours, a city that straddles the Loire River, in north central France. The man’s extremities had turned blue, and he had necrotic skin lesions and a large number of maggots around his genital organs, according to the report. Blood cultures taken when he was admitted to the Tours University Hospital revealed a number of common bacteria known to be associated with maggots.
However, the lab also cultured one unusual bacterium that they were initially unable to identify. Using PCR and DNA sequencing, the bacterium was ultimately identified as Ignatzschineria ureiclastica. This organism (formerly classified within the Schineria genus) is also known to be associated with maggots; in fact, it is known to be the dominant species found in the anterior portion of the digestive tract of this particular species of maggot. Two other similar cases of blood stream infection with this bacterium associated with maggot infestation in other parts of France were reported in 2007. Unfortunately, the man from Tours died in his hospital bed 10 days after he was admitted.
Maggots, which look at fat worms, are actually the larval forms of flies, and they fed on living or dead tissue. Infection with maggots (called “myiasis” in medical terminology) usually occur in various animal species – often recognized in economically important livestock animals such as sheep, cattle, and goats, but can occur in people too. The bacterium Ignatzschineria was first isolated from the larvae of the spotted flesh fly in 2001 and named after Austrian entomologist Ignaz Rudolph Schiner (1813-1873), who first described the fly.
“Clinicians and microbiologists should be aware of the possibility of invasive Ignatzschineria infections in presence of maggots in patients with poor hygiene and should check specifically for this bacterium,” the article stresses.
“Lice, ticks, mosquitoes and bedbugs will always lurk in the shadows when neglect, poverty, famine or war lets down the defenses,” wrote Hans Zinsser in his 1935 bestseller Rats, Lice and History. Perhaps Dr. Zinsser should have included maggots in his list as well.
Chris A. Whitehouse is a microbiologist and science writer who lives in Maryland. He writes extensively on emerging infectious diseases of humans and wildlife.