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.

Related Links

Community Wins Suit Against Egg Farm

An Ohio jury has awarded neighbors of a large factory farm $19.7 million in damages. People living near Buckeye Egg Farm in central Ohio have complained for years of fly infestations and odors. The outcome is seen as a victory by those living next to large-scale farm operations throughout the region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston has the story:


An Ohio jury has awarded neighbors of a large factory farm 19.7 million dollars in damages. People living near Buckeye Egg Farm in Central Ohio have complained for years of fly infestations and odors. The outcome of the lawsuit may or may not affect similar cases in other states. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports.

(Natural sound of locusts, wind, dog barking in the distance)

Freda Douthitt’s house sits at the end of a gravel lane. The driveway is surrounded by trees and wild flowers. She’s always liked it here because it’s secluded … she’s a couple miles from a rural road. She likes to sit on the multi-tiered back patio that overlooks a small pond. That’s where she grades composition papers from her Freshman English class at Ohio University.

(sound of flies)

But she has also had to swat at flies for the past ten years. Douthitt collects flies in a container that is nearly the size of a gallon milk jug. She estimates this one has about 2-3 inches worth of decomposing flies and maggots collected since August 22.

“It smells out here. That’s the flytrap. That keeps some of them from getting in the house. Today there’s a few flies out here. There are days when that wall would be just polka dotted with them.

Douthitt has frozen the containers of flies and collected them over the years. She took them to court with her to prove the problems she deals with living near a factory farm.
That’s what helped her win a 1.2 million dollar share of a settlement with Buckeye Egg Farm. It’s one of the world’s largest egg-laying producers. Douthitt’s house is three-quarters of a mile from one of the company’s egg-laying plants. The flies come from the vast amounts of manure produced by millions of chickens housed at the company’s barns. The manure gets spread on farm fields that surround Douthitt’s house after harvest season in the fall. Since then … she has watched as run-off from Buckeye Egg properties killed tens-of-thousands of fish in a nearby creek. She has even seen the creek water turn purple.

She says she never expected to win in court against the company when she began the legal battle 9 years ago.

“I never thought about suing. Until one of the neighbors I’d been working hard with trying to get the EPA to do something … trying to get the county health department interested … um, we were both frustrated at that point. She called up one evening and said we’re ready to call a lawyer, are you? And I said, yeah, I’ll meet with you.
As the years went by I became pretty frustrated, and wondered what would make a difference.”

Douthitt and 20 of her neighbors won a 19.7 million dollar lawsuit against Buckeye Egg.
This win has other people in Great Lakes states hopeful they too can win in court against large factory farms.

Julie Janson of Olivia, Minnesota knows Douthitt’s story all too well. Janson has been fighting hog factory farm owner Valadco for 6 years. Her house sits sandwiched between two of the company’s hog barns. Janson and her husband filed a lawsuit this spring against the company. They are asking for close to 200-thousand dollars because Janson says her family of eight gets sick from manure odors.

Janson says she took her 11-year-old daughter to a specialist in California to prove she has brain damage from smelling hydrogen sulfide.

Decomposing manure creates hydrogen sulfide gas and ammonia that smells like rotten eggs.

“Sometimes it’s enough to gag a maggot. The stink is putrid. And, it penetrates through your house, through the windows and doors. Every little crack in your home.”

Janson says her family has spent one hundred thousand dollars to fight Valadco.
She had to close her daycare center, which she ran from her home, partly because of the stench. Her husband is supporting the family with his truck-driving job that brings in nearly 38-thousand dollars a year.

She says a win over Buckeye Egg farm in Ohio is a victory that can help her cause.

“There’s finally been some justice served. Some of these people have been fighting for over ten years. And … to me … it just says no matter how long and painful it is, you need to fight for justice because if us citizens don’t fight it’s never gonna happen.”

Both Janson and Douthitt say it’s not the money that will make them happy.
Douthitt says she will probably never see the money that she is owed.
But … she says the county judge may force the company to clean up its farms and the surrounding communities.

“How can they have that many animals and that much manure and let it just pour out and not treat it? They let it just pour out onto the land.”

Buckeye egg farm officials have said they may appeal the verdict. The company says it has already spent millions of dollars to try and clean up its facilities. Earlier this year, Buckeye Egg settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit with Ohio’s attorney general’s office. The state sued the company for dumping dead chickens in a field and polluting creeks by spilling contaminated water. The state has since filed seven sets of contempt charges against Buckeye Egg for not correcting the problems. It’s still undecided whether Buckeye Egg will file for bankruptcy following the verdict.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.