Maggots: Reviving an Ancient Medical Treatment

  • Maggots can be used as a medical treatment. Specifically, to help treat wounds. (Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)

An ancient medical treatment is starting to be used again to treat wounds. But for many people, just the thought of the treatment is stomach-turning. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has the story:


An ancient medical treatment is starting to be used again to treat wounds,
but for many people, just the thought of the treatment is stomach turning.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has the story:

Ray Peterson has already lost one leg to diabetes. On his remaining foot
there’s a deep wound, and it’s not healing. It’s not getting better because
of the diabetes. He could lose his second leg.

His doctor is taking the dressing off Peterson’s wound. The wound…is
ugly. It looks like someone drilled a quarter-sized hole deep into
Peterson’s foot. The wound smells bad, and then the doctor finds
maggots. The blowfly larvae are squirming around in there. The doctor
is not surprised, though. He put the maggots there a few days ago. It’s
part of the treatment to save Ray Peterson’s leg.

They’re not exactly the kind of maggots you’d find in your garbage can,
but they’re similar. Last summer the FDA approved maggots as medical

The maggots eat the dead tissue, not the live flesh. In a process
researchers don’t completely understand… the maggots actually clean
and disinfect the wound much better than a surgeon could. Apparently,
they’re attracted to the bacteria in the dead tissue.

Ray Peterson is in his doctor’s office, trading in some big, full maggots
for some new hungry ones.

The old, fat maggots are washed off with saline. The doctor has to dig around
with the tweezers to get a few strays out.

Ray Peterson says he doesn’t mind seeing the process.

“I enjoy watching them, truthfully.”

The doctor cleans the wound a bit more and then places tiny, new maggots on
it with a small spatula.

(Sound of office)

There are plenty of maggot jokes as Dr. Dowling and the nurses work on
Peterson’s foot. Dowling says that his staff has become comfortable with
the maggots, but many health care professionals are not.

“Actually the patients react much better than the doctors. Every patient
I’ve done it on has been very excited and enthusiastic. I can’t say that’s
always the case for the medical community at large. I’ve had some
doctors tell patients if you have maggots on your foot, don’t come in my
office, but I think that will go away with time the more it’s accepted.

The new maggots start moving around as soon as they feel warmth and smell
food. Dr. Dowling and his nurses quickly contain them with a bandage.

“We build a cage around the wound to hold the maggots in, we’ll put the
maggots in, cover up the cage, and leave it there for two to three days,
and during that time the maggots will increase in size two to three times.
And then, when they come in we’ll take the cage off and wash the maggots out
with saline solution, and look at the wound and decide if it needs another
application or not.”

Several clinical studies have been conducted on the maggot treatment.
The results have been overwhelmingly good, but because the idea is so
repulsive to many patients or their doctors, the practice is still not

Robert Root Bernstein is a professor of physiology at Michigan State
University. He co-wrote the book “Honey, Mud, Maggots and other Medical Marvels.”

“Taking a maggot or a bunch of maggots and putting them in a wound and watching
them crawl around in there is not something that most people find appealing, and
usually okay for the patient – the patient doesn’t actually have to look. It’s the
practitioners who have to deal with these squirmy little things and have to put
them in and take them out who seem to have most of the problem with the therapy.”

Root Bernstein says maggot therapy might catch on. That’s because doctors are seeing
more and more diabetic wounds as the rate of diabetes keeps going up in the U.S.
When medicines such as antibiotics don’t work on the stubborn wounds,
patients and doctors sometimes turn to the maggot therapy as their last hope for

Ray Peterson found out about maggot therapy when his daughter saw an
article in a local newspaper. He says at first his friends were a little put
off, but then started kidding him about the procedure.

“They call me maggot man. Just for a joke. I go along with them. You’re a pretty
good sport about this. You gotta be.”

And Peterson says the good-natured ribbing is sure a lot better than the
alternative. Peterson also thinks if people can get past the “ick” factor…
more people’s limbs might be saved by maggot therapy.

For the GLRC, I’m Melissa Ingells.

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