Medical Maggots Treat As They Eat

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
October 24, 2003

The National Geographic Ultimate Explorer television program Creepy Healers airs Sunday, October 26, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC.

A few years ago, the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator had audiences squirming in their seats as the grievous wounds of the film's Roman gladiator protagonist, played by Russell Crowe, were treated (successfully, one might add) by the application of live maggots.

Think it was Tinseltown hyperbole, or perhaps a brief star-turn for an ancient folk remedy? It might be surprising to hear, then, that maggot therapy is enjoying a revival as a modern medical technique—with apparently promising results.

Today doctors use medicinal maggots to clean wounds by dissolving dead tissue and to disinfect them by killing bacteria. These actions stimulate proper healing.

"I call them microsurgeons," said Edgar Maeyens, Jr., a doctor in Coos Bay, Oregon, who employs maggot treatment. "They can do what we can't do with scalpels and lasers."

Only a few species of fly larvae, primarily blowflies, are suitable for such duty. Five to ten maggots are placed on each square centimeter (0.2 square inch) of a wound, which is then covered with a protective dressing that allows the maggots to breath. For the next 48 to 72 hours, the maggots dissolve dead tissue by secreting digestive juices and then ingesting the liquefied tissue and bacteria. The maggots grow from about two millimeters (0.08 inch) to nearly ten millimeters (0.4 inch) while doing the doctor's dirty work.

"I'm just a supporting actor here," Maeyens said. "The maggots are marvelous."

When Other Treatments Fail

Maggot medicine isn't applied to just any case. It's employed on wounds that don't respond to more conventional methods.

"After two or three failures of conventional medical or surgical therapy, maggot therapy should be considered for non-healing wounds, especially those which are infected or contain dead tissue [gangrene]," said Ronald Sherman, a doctor at the department of pathology at the University of California at Irvine.

Wounds commonly treated include foot and leg ulcers, burns, and post-operative wounds that have become infected and re-opened.

There is no shortage of patients eager to give the creatures a try. Suffering the maggots for a few days is small price to treat messy, painful wounds that have lingered for months or even years, doctors say.

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