A Case of Eye Worm

Watch doctors remove a live worm from a patient's eye.
Viral image/Photos originally appeared in Archives of Ophthalmology

A collection of images circulating on the Internet purports to show the surgical removal of a live worm or insect larva from a patient's eye. The patient had come to the doctor's office complaining of swelling and irritation due to dust exposure.

Forwarded text:

Fw: Careful with dust!!!
Its just like from an alien movie be very careful when u get caught with dust.... as following pics will show effects of bad dust to a person.
While he was walking he felt an eye irritation, thinking that it was just regular dust, he started to rub his eye, in an effort to remove the dust.... then his eyes got really red, and he went and bought some eye drops from a pharmacy.... few days passed n his eyes were still red and seems a little swollen.
Again he dismissed it as the constant rubbing and that it will go away. The days go by the swelling of his eye got worse, redder and bigger.... till he decided to go and see a doctor for a check up.
The doctor immediately wanted an operation, being afraid of a tumor growth or cyst. At the operation, what was thought to be a growth or cyst, actually turned out to be a live worm..... what was thought initially to be just mere dust actually was an insect's egg...... because of that, my friends, if u do get caught in dust, and the pain persists, pls go see a doctor immediately...... thank you.... (see the pics)
Email contributed by a reader, November 16, 2002

Description: Viral images and text
Circulating since: Nov. 2002
Status: Images are authentic; the story not so much

Analysis: Bizarre as it may seem, the photos above are authentic, though the same cannot be said of the accompanying text, which is an utter fabrication.

There's no way to determine who assembled the collage, which has circulated anonymously since 2002, but I did manage to locate the source of the individual images, an article entitled "Anterior Orbital Myiasis Caused by Human Botfly," published in the July 2000 edition of the Archives of Ophthalmology, a journal of the American Medical Association.

Myiasis is the medical term for a maggot (fly larva) infestation of a living body. In this case, the patient was a 5-year-old boy treated by U.S. Air Force surgeons in a rural area of the Republic of Honduras. "The respiratory pore of a late-stage larva of the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) was located in the anterior orbit," says the article abstract. "The larva was gently removed under general anesthesia through a small incision in the conjunctiva."

That is to say, the patient had a worm in his eye. Doctors put him under and removed it through a small incision on the surface of his eyeball. Apparently, the patient was none the worse for wear in the aftermath.

Of eye worms, botflies and blowflies

It would appear that the journal article itself was not consulted at all when the email tale above was composed. Neither "bad dust" nor excessive eye rubbing are cited by the authors as causes of the larva infestation in the 5-year-old patient. It resulted from contact with insects.

According to entomologists, the human botfly lays its eggs on the bodies of other insects (such as mosquitoes), which then transfer the eggs to animal or human hosts by direct contact. When a botfly egg hatches, the larva burrows into the host's skin (or, in this case, eye) head-first and begins feeding.

This nasty creature is found mainly in Central and South America, but there are other species of flies known to responsible for cases of myiasis in North America, mainly blowflies. According to an epidemiological study conducted in 2000, most instances of myiasis acquired in the U.S. resulted from blowflies laying their eggs in pre-existing wounds.

None of which is quite as terrifying as the claim that any one of us could end up with an eye worm simply by being exposed to too much dust — which helps explain why the true facts of the case aren't circulating with the photos. In folklore, the story's the thing. Accuracy takes a back seat to the emotional impact of the narrative; or, as folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand succinctly puts it, "The truth never stands in the way of a good story."

Sources and further reading

Anterior Orbital Myiasis Caused by Human Botfly
Archives of Ophthalmology, July 2000

Human Botfly (Dermatobia hominis)
University of Sao Paulo

Wound myiasis in urban and suburban U.S.
Archives of Internal Medicine, July 2000