The headlines lately could be straight out of a Stephen King novel:
“Florida fights flesh-eating screwworms” – CNN
“Officials: Screwworm infestation spreads in Florida Keys” – Fox News.
“Attack of the flesh-eating screwworm pushes up Key deer death toll” – Miami Herald
Sadly the truth is gruesome and alarming for Florida. Cochliomyia hominivorax, known as the New World screwworm fly, is a species of parasitic fly that is well known for the way in which its larvae eat the living tissue of warm-blooded animals.
In late September, it was reported that the endangered Key deer were falling victim to an infestation of this insect. Origin unknown. It is the first infestation in the U.S. in more than 30 years and the first time in 50 years that Florida must deal with this scourge.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) confirmed the presence of the screwworm in Key deer from a wildlife refuge in Big Pine Key on Sept. 30. In response, Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam declared an agricultural state of emergency in Monroe County.
In a written statement, Putnam said, “The screwworm is a potentially devastating animal disease that sends shivers down every rancher’s spine. It’s been more than five decades since the screwworm last infested Florida, and I’ve grown up hearing the horror stories from the last occurrence. This foreign animal disease poses a grave threat to wildlife, livestock and domestic pets in Florida. Though rare, it can even infect humans.”
He went on to add, “We’ve eradicated this from Florida before and we’ll do it again. We will work with our partners on the federal, state and local level to protect our residents, animals and wildlife by eliminating the screwworm from Florida. The public’s assistance is crucial to the success of this eradication program.”
The state is releasing sterile flies to eliminate the screwworm population, trapping flies to determine the extent of the infestation and disease surveillance to look for additional animal cases.
How the infection spreads is that the female screwworm fly lands on animals through an open wound or the mucous membranes of an animal’s nose, mouth or ears and there lays hundreds of eggs. The eggs emerge as maggots who then feed on the living tissue of the animal. If caught early the animal can make a complete recovery. However, untreated, the animal will die in seven to 14 days.
In order to isolate the outbreak an Animal Health Check Zone has been established for travelers driving north at mile marker 106 in Key Largo.
Since the announcement the infestation has spread throughout the Keys. It went from Big Pine to No Name Key. And most recently the screwworm has been found on: Big Torch, Middle Torch, Little Torch, Cudjoe and Ramrod keys. An infected deer also was found on Summerland Key.
As of Oct. 18, 97 Key deer had been euthanized, out of the total herd of 1,000.
Residents who have warm-blooded animals (pets, livestock) should watch their animals carefully and report any potential cases to 1-800-HELP-FLA. Non-residents should call (850) 410-3800.
Photo: Top image by Lyle J. Buss/University of Florida.