How to Avoid Parasitic Eye Worms, Like the Ones Removed From This Woman’s Eyeball

You know the annoying feeling of having some small irritant in your eye, like a stray eyelash? Imagine that, then imagine the stray lash is actually a tiny worm — and that 14 of these worms are discovered in your eye. This is what happened to Abby Beckley, a 28-year-old Oregon woman whose medical drama began when she began experiencing eye irritation in the summer of 2016.

According to NPR, Beckley had been living on an inactive cattle ranch in Oregon before noticing the sensation. She initially didn’t see anything to remove, so she let it go until her eye became even more irritated and inflamed. That’s when she dug deep and pulled what looked like a clear thread out from under her eyeball. When she looked closer, though, “It was squiggling around on my finger,” she told NPR. “I thought, ‘This is nuts! A worm just came out of my eye.'”

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Her amazement was shared by the eye doctors at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), whom she saw after removing four more worms from her eye, some of which wriggled directly across her eyeball. The scenario was so wild that at first, the doctors didn’t even believe Beckley. Eventually, though, they saw one of the little creatures in action on Beckley’s eye, at which point Beckley says they started screaming, “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! It just crawled across your eye!” (Medical professionals panicking always inspires confidence in patients during high-stress times, right?)

The worms were eventually sent off to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for evaluation. Over the next few weeks, worms continued to emerge from Beckley’s eye for a total of 14 worms overall. “I was definitely in distress, for sure, but I also started making jokes, because I had to deal with it. It’s so gross to think about, but it was happening to me,” she told CNN.

The CDC’s Parasitic Diseases Branch ultimately identified the worms as Thelazia gulosa, a kind of parasite that had only ever been observed in cattle. As CDC parasitologist Richard Bradbury explained to NPR, these worms typically live on the surfaces of cows’ eyes, where they mate and make lots of babies. (“It’s very romantic,” he said.)

The worms create pus in the cow’s eyes, which then attracts flies that suck worm larvae out of the pus. “The baby worms then grow into larger larvae inside the fly,” Bradbury said. “And when the worms get big enough, the fly releases them back into another cow’s eye — or even a human eye.” This was likely the case with Beckley: As Bradbury put it, “The fly vomited the worms into her eye.” Beckley has the distinction of being the first human on record to be affected.

Kirk Packo, the chairman of ophthalmology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, has dealt with other types of parasites getting into patients’ eyes — primarily the rat lungworm. He was surprised to hear of Beckley’s case, however. “Humans usually just don’t have flies nesting on their eyelids and eating their tear film without shooing it away, whereas a cow may not do that,” he tells Allure. “This, fortunately, is one that doesn’t cause much trouble except for the disgust of it and the irritation it can create. This particular worm doesn’t live in the human, so eventually, it dies…and it didn’t harm her vision at all. It was just an external thing that never gets inside the eye.”

Indeed, the worms haven’t had any lasting physical effects on Beckley: Once the 14th (and final) creature was out of her eye, everything reportedly went back to normal. Freaked out? Know that this whole situation is incredibly rare. According to the case report on Beckley published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene this week, eye worms other than Thelazia gulosa have only infected humans in North America 10 recorded times. What’s more, these cases occurred primarily in “rural communities with close proximity to animals and poor living standards” and mostly affected “the elderly and children, who may be less able to keep flies away from their faces.” So, Bradbury said to NPR, “When you see flies around your face, swat them away before they land near your eyes.”

As for the aforementioned rat lungworm, Packo says it is usually transmitted through fresh produce and undercooked meats. Although it’s becoming more common, it’s still incredibly rare, as are other parasites that make their way to patients’ eyes. “I’d say a busy eye doctor would probably run across one of these once every couple years,” Packo says. “It depends on where you are; Hawaiian ophthalmologists are seeing them more commonly than we are in Chicago, but again, it’s still not a common thing.” He adds that most people avoid such parasites by washing vegetables and avoiding undercooked meat.

The bottom line? “Rare things happen rarely,” Packo says. “If you don’t want to be the rare person to have it, then it’s all common sense… Wash things carefully, and be careful what you eat.”


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