In the early 1980s, I was a Royal Air Force squadron leader and secretary of the RAF Ornithological Society. At the time, the RAF was willing to support “adventurous training”, which meant we could carry out ornithological expeditions to wherever there was a British military presence.
In 1981, I led one such expedition to Belize. With its humid jungle and coastal swamp, the country was an ideal location for arduous training under field conditions, as well as a great natural habitat for bird observation and research.
After returning home, I found a small blemish on my forehead, just below my hairline. Initially I thought it was just a regular spot, and squeezed it: a big mistake. My face swelled up like a balloon and my skin became tight and very uncomfortable. I tried to see a doctor, but it was Easter and finding a GP was near impossible. When I tried to explain the problem on the phone, I was dismissed. It was only once I mentioned I’d been to Belize that I was prescribed antibiotics. They seemed to work and my face returned to normal within a few days.
The spot, however, didn’t go away. After a couple of weeks it started to swell, itch and ache. It grew into a round lump, which slowly became more oval. Each week it grew larger, with a small hole at one end. Every now and then I experienced a sharp, stabbing pain, like a pin twisting under my skin, and a bloody fluid flowed from the hole.
This was not too much trouble at first, even though during my commute by train blood ran down from my forehead. But it started to become a nuisance when I was chairing meetings at the Ministry of Defence. Colleagues were somewhat taken aback.
After a month, with the odd-shaped bump still increasing in size, I became impatient. One evening, after a couple of whiskies, I attempted to encourage an ending. I squeezed the spot and something – not just blood, something solid – started to emerge. When it was a little way out, I was able to grab it and slowly pull it out from my forehead. In my fingers was a plump maggot, about 2.5cm long. It looked just like the fly maggots you see in food waste in the summer, but longer and fatter.
I had been aware that the spot could be the result of a parasite bite, and had already consulted the RAF Institute of Pathology and Tropical Medicine who said, with typical British stiff upper lip, that I shouldn’t worry as it was probably a botfly larva that would come out when it was ready. But I hadn’t expected something so big, so alive, so wiggly to emerge. Shaking, I had a couple more shots of whisky and placed the thing in alcohol (gin, as it was all that was available) to preserve it for the tropical medicine staff to confirm what it was. Amazingly, as soon as it was gone, the hole closed; within 24 hours it had healed perfectly.
I was told that what had been living in my forehead was indeed a botfly larva. The botfly is a large, beautifully coloured fly found in Central and South America. It lives for only a few days as an adult. During that time, the female will mate, and deposit her eggs on skin-piercing insects such as mosquitoes, which, in turn, inject the eggs under the skin of humans and other mammals, where the larvae can feed and grow until they leave the host to pupate on the ground. Mine was relatively small; the larvae can grow to 3.2cm long.
I’ve subsequently learned that I could have dealt with the maggot earlier. If I had covered the hole on my head with petroleum jelly, it would have suffocated; in those cases, it normally dies and is absorbed into the body. Or I could have strapped a piece of meat to the bite so the maggot would lose interest in me and chew its way into something tastier.
I wouldn’t want my story to put anyone off going to Belize, which is a beautiful country full of wildlife. A botfly bite is unlikely on tourist holidays. However, if the worst happens, just know you’ll be helping to provide food and shelter for a maggot, for up to four weeks afterwards.