June is usually the worst month for flies around here, but the season seems to have started early this year; they've annoyed us for at least two weeks. In addition, the sheer number of flies seems to us to be much more than during the past two years. Three years ago, when we moved into this house in June, the flies were so bad that they covered the hood of our white truck; it was almost black with flies. They're not that bad this year, but they're a problem. I checked with Darío, to get his opinion of what was happening up in the pueblo proper, where he lives, and he agrees that this is a bad year for flies
Most people in this barrio blame the fly problem on Avicola Athenas, which is a big (as Panamá goes) chicken farm near here. Hard to judge, but I'd say the main sheds are about a kilometer from here, maybe a little more, as the crow--or fly--flies. However, I have a hard time believing that flies from the Avicola can travel the 2+ miles to Potrerillos itself. I'd have to check but I'm skeptical that flies can traverse that long a distance.
But since we've become sensitive to their presence, during my morning scan of La Prensa some time last week, I noticed a short article talking about corruption in the program that is designed to control the gusano barrenador. "Gusano" is the generic term for caterpillars or other larvae, but I didn't recognize "barrenador" nor could I find it in the dictionary. I had a hunch, given the information in the article, that it referred to the screwworm. There is a name for the fly in Spanish that is related to tornillo (screw), but I hadn't heard it for years, and I couldn't (still can't) remember what it is.
When we first came here, we listened patiently to those of our gringo neighbors who delighted in telling us horror stories about living here. I don't mean advice about construction--I mean about potential dangers. Snakes, scorpions, fire ants, you name it. Knowing the syndrome of wanting to scare the newbies, I more or less ignored all this while keeping up a polite pretense of listening. But what caught my attention was the description of a fly which laid its eggs on the skin of an animal. Naturally, the eggs hatch into larvae about the length of a thumb joint (standard unit of measure around here)--in other words, about an inch or more.
The larva then burrows underneath the skin of its host, leaving behind a hole which it needs to breathe. According to my tickled-pink narrators, everything is really ok, because when the larva matures into a fly, it leaves the host--unless of course the fly immediately deposits more eggs and re-infects the host. I was given jovial accounts of driving by a cattle pasture and seeing the skins of the cattle rippling with movement from the larvae. I was gleefully informed that our dogs were at risk, since they, too, could serve as hosts. One person kindly offered to teach me how to pinch the skin of the dog so that the larva would be expelled. I declined as politely as I could.
Fire ants--no problem. Scorpions--not the least bit fazed. Snakes in the bathroom when you get up during the middle of the night--hey, I can handle that.
But this? I wasn't so sure.
Not too long afterwards, a 12 year old Panamanian friend of ours mentioned casually that she had had a gusano in her scalp some years ago. That's when I learned that the problem extended to humans as well. Friends of ours bought a Rottweiler puppy in Dolega about the same time and noticed an odd sort of movement under the shoulder skin. The vet squeezed--and ejected an inch-and-a-half larva across the room, according to the woman who told me, shuddering with disgust as she did so. The vet, she said, was pretty matter-of-fact about it. Nothing unusual.
Worried about the dogs because of living right next door to a cattle ranch, I checked with our vet who told me that while it had been a problem in the past, it was pretty much eliminated now.
Tuesday, when I had my "class" with Maritza, I asked her for the translation of gusano barrenador. My hunch was correct--it was the screwworm. Ricardo, who was surfing the TV (is there something in the Y chromosome? This behavior seems to cross national and cultural boundaries) came over and gave me a good 5 minute lecture on the screwworm and the measures taken to eradicate it. Since Ricardo insists on believing that I'm fluent in Spanish, he usually lapses into the Chiriquí dialect when he talks with me, and carries on at a Panamanian rate. Which meant that I understood maybe 1 word in 10 that Tuesday night.
However, I picked up enough--and Maritza reinforced his comments--to understand that they believed the fly was bien controlado through the government's program of sterile insect control--releasing irradiated, sterile male flies into the wild population.
But Martiza, who was a primary school teacher until she retired, told me that she had seen children, especially indigenous ones, come to school with the gusanos in their scalps and underneath the skin of their shoulders. I assume this was before the program.
Intrigued by all this, I did some Internet research and found out that the screwworm is a problem in the southern US as well as Central America and Africa. There are two species, the Old World screwworm and the New World one. The major control effort is through the Sterile Insect Control (SIC) technique, although insecticides and creams are used as well. In areas where the screwworm is more or less endemic, there isn't a hope of a stable cattle industry without control efforts. Losses can be pretty substantial.
I didn't pursue it too far, but got the impression that it was far more of a problem in Africa. Might be due to the different species of fly, for all I know. What impressed me was a picture of a child (nationality not disclosed but looked Caucasian) who had a fly burrow the extent of his shin--a good 12-15 inches long if not more. That's like nothing I've heard of here. It was gruesome.
The fact that money is disappearing into someone(s) pockets from this program, therefore, is not funny. I personally have no problem with sex between consenting adults and have always found hypocritical the uproar in the US when politicians engage in it. But as far as I'm concerned, stealing public funds, especially from public health programs, is tantamount to treason, no matter where it occurs. But, the officials of the screwworm control program remain mystified as to where the majority of the "missing" funds disappeared. If I remember correctly, well over a million dollars vanished. My guess is that at least some of that money came from international public health sources, not just from the Panamanian government. I've seen that happen over and over again in Brasil.
I really don't believe that the risk from screwworm is high, but it's one more reason to bathe dogs frequently. Our vet recommends every two weeks, both to control skin diseases and for parasite control. We've learned through unpleasant experience to take him at his word. We often don't get to it quite every two weeks--in the rainy season, it's likely to be once a month--but we work at it.
I recommend the practice.
Thanks to Don Ray of Chiriquí Chatter who sent me this link for a YouTube video of the Bot Fly in Panamá. As I mention in the Comments, I don't know if they're the same gusano, but sure looks like it could be.
This video is not for the squeamish, ok? It shows the gusano being pulled out of someone's back by means of tweezers.