Maggots ate my flesh!

By AUDREY SCHULMAN  |  July 16, 2007

Weird science
Medical abstracts are not exactly breezy reads. Sometimes, it seems, you do have to be a brain surgeon to parse this dense, technical genre of literature. But this isn’t true of most maggot-biosurgery abstracts; nearly every study ends with a neat, clean sentence that betrays the researchers’ surprise: maggots do quickly, effectively, and cheaply, they conclude, what conventional medicine can’t.

Some researchers go even further with their praise. As Leaphart tells the Phoenix, “Maggots are the world’s tiniest surgeons: the most effective, most elegant, and least painful.” These research studies show that medicinal maggots work in three ways. First, they secrete enzymes that selectively dissolve only dead flesh, allowing them to clean a wound with far better pinpoint precision than conventional surgery can. Second, the tiny biosurgeons kill all bacteria — even antibiotic-resistant staph infections — while they work. And finally, maggots help blood vessels grow back in the wounded area.

“Maggots appear to have another interesting and potentially very valuable ability,” says Riley. “They are able to destroy unhealthy or abnormal tissue, leaving healthy tissue in its place.”

Ancient healers such as the Mayans and at least one aboriginal tribe in Australia knew this; they noticed long ago that severe wounds infected with maggots healed faster and with less scarring than wounds that didn’t. So it was that they began the practice of deliberately leaving certain flesh injuries uncovered — or even wrapping them in a dressing made of congealed beef blood, thus attracting flies and their larvae.

Modern scientific research caught up with these older cultures in 1931, when Dr. William Baer of John Hopkins University, who had first observed the effects of maggots on a World War I battlefield, published a study demonstrating the healing power of MDT in 98 children with inflammation of the bone and marrow. Within a few years, several hundred US hospitals were employing the technique.

Then, in 1942, penicillin was developed for human use. This miracle drug helped heal wounds before they deteriorated to the stage where maggots were necessary, so doctors happily tossed their knowledge of biosurgery in the trash, along with the maggots themselves.

Some are content to leave them there. Dr. Ron Sherman, lab director of Monarch Labs, in Irvine, California — the primary commercial retailer of medical-grade maggots in the US — argues that American doctors resist MDT at least in part because of the structure of the American health-care system. “It is very much more accepted in Europe,” he says, “where doctors’ salaries are not so tightly dependent upon the reimbursement of procedures. In the US, maggot therapy will be reimbursed by insurance companies, but the fee will be low . . . much lower than if the doctor debrides the wound surgically, or treats the
wound with a modality that is much more expensive — or reimbursed at a higher rate — than maggot therapy.”

Besides, adds Leaphart, “Most doctors don’t want their next patient to find maggots in the exam chair.”

Like it or not, however, many medical professionals are finding they have few other choices. Case in point: the number of “unique clients” coming to Monarch Labs, says Sherman, “has grown by between 10 and 25 percent a year over the past five years.”

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