Second case of parasitic eye worm diagnosed, sparks fear of emerging disease

Second human case of thelazia gulosa eye worms confirmed by CDC.
Image: CDC

In 2018, the Internet lost its collective mind when an Oregon woman pulled 14 half-inch long translucent worms out of her eye. Her case was the first documented human infection of Thelazia gulosa, a type of parasite that typically affects cattle. However, a second woman, this time from Nebraska, has been infected with the same species.

Now, CDC scientists fear that the previously unheard-of parasitic infection could be a rare yet emerging problem in the United States. They have collected their research in a paper published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Itchy Eyes

During a visit to California, 68-year-old Dianne Gustafson ran through a swarm of flies during a jog on a trail. Most of the time, this wouldn’t be anything more than a minor inconvenience. Unfortunately for Gustafson, that swarm likely contained a species of fly known as the “face fly.”

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A month later, she experienced severe irritation in her right eye. After rinsing it with warm water she was horrified to find that a translucent worm had been living in it. Another rinse caused a second worm to emerge. At that point, Gustafson visited the eye doctor—who would go on to extract a third worm. When her symptoms didn’t resolve, she pulled a fourth worm from her eye. Once that one was evicted, her eyes quickly returned to normal.

According to the study’s lead author Richard Bradbury of the CDC, “The vector fly will expel larvae onto the surface of the eye or the conjunctiva while feeding on lacrimal secretions (tears, etc.). This can happen very quickly, so the fly would not have had to sit on the eye for more than a few seconds to expel the larvae.”

Thankfully, the worms can’t fully mature in someone’s eye as they need to be picked up by another face fly. Nonetheless, they can cause permanent eye damage and blindness if they are not removed. Not to mention the thought of having a worm in your eye is enough to send shivers down your spine.

Crazy Coincidence or Emerging Trend?

At this point, experts are trying to determine if the two cases of T. gulosa infection in humans (which happened within a few years of each other) are a coincidence or something more sinister.

Bradbury says, “While it may just be a ‘fluke’ event that two cases have occurred within a year or two of each other, it does raise the possibility that something might have changed in the ecology of T. gulosa in the USA to cause it to start occasionally infecting humans.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that scientists can do except wait and watch. Until more cases of the mysterious eye worms are documented, there is no way to know if a trend is developing.

For now, rest assured that the chance of contracting eye worms is extremely low. Still, anyone who suspects they may be infected should visit an eye doctor immediately. You might even get to help write the case study about your infection like Gustafson did.