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Bugs that dine on humans
WSU expert's talk gives audience the creeps
Thursday, May 24, 2012
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
Video by Matt Haugen, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. -- Imagine sitting down to a brown-bag lunch discussion and being handed a ponytailed head infested with lice eggs. The head is carved of wood, mind you, but the hair and eggs are very much real.
Such was the scene at a recent lunch presentation by Washington State University entomologist Richard Zack about insects that live on humans. Lice, bed bugs, ticks, maggots— it was enough to make people plunk down their carrot sticks and cheese sandwiches and wrinkle their noses with revulsion.
"It’s a good thing that most of you didn’t bring lunch with you,” was Zack’s opening line to the group of 20 who turned out to hear him speak as part of WSU’s Work/Life Advisory luncheon gatherings.
"You may not like what you’ll hear and see.”
With that, he projected photographs on the wall and passed around exhibits. "These, I just pulled off my body yesterday and they’re alive,” he said, holding up a container of brown ticks the size of apple seeds.
Creeping and crawling
As the canister was passed around the table, Zack explained that the diminutive eight-legged creatures are "haemophagic,” or blood suckers, like most insects that call humans their home. But unlike mosquitoes and bedbugs, which eat and run, ticks settle in for long-term dining, he said. Once they latch on, the problem isn’t what they suck out, it’s what they might deposit inside.
"Some ticks transmit diseases that affect people and animals, but most are harmless,” he said. Still, if you do see one burrowed in, it’s best to remove it as soon as possible.
Even tinier creatures that bore into humans for the long haul are lice. Granted, they’re not known to carry disease, but, oh! what an itchy nuisance they’ve been for centuries, explained Zack, who is the director of WSU’s M. T. James Entomological Collection, the largest gathering of insects you’ll ever see.
"You know the term nit-picking?” he asked the group. "It comes from the time before chemical products were used to destroy lice eggs,” he said. "People would sit for hours, picking nits from another person’s hair shafts, one by one.”
Next topic: Bed bugs. These wingless urchins that feast on humans after they go to bed can leave itchy bumps similar to mosquito bites, said Zack.
"It’s not that they know you’re asleep; they know when it’s dark and they can get a free meal.”
Fortunately, while unpleasant, bed bugs don’t appear to carry diseases. Not-so-fortunately, even a four-star rating can’t keep them out of hotel beds.
"They’re not just found in $29.99 rooms,” he said.
Maggots to the rescue
While the idea of sleeping with the enemy was certainly a turnoff, the biggest gross-out factor of his presentation were the maggots. The warning VIEWER DESCRETION ADVISED on the video was the first tip-off. Then came live-action footage of pulsating maggots, plump as earthworms, inside a golf ball-sized wound of some poor patient’s gangrened foot.
"Most people associate maggots with death, when, in fact, they can be lifesavers,” explained Zack.
Maggots feed on living flesh, devouring germs and anything that gets in their way, he explained. Maggot therapy -- the use of maggots to eat dead tissue and kill bacteria – is a fairly simple and inexpensive process where doctors clean the wound, insert the maggots and cover the area with gauze.
Then, two or three days later -- as demonstrated by the patient’s just-unwrapped foot on the video – "Look at how beautifully clean that wound is!” Zack pointed out, as a white-coated doctor plucked out each of the wiggling maggots.
Around the table, viewers muttered and grimaced. But all eyes remained transfixed.