11 November 2013

When Worms Hatch Out of Your Skin

A while back I talked a bit about the issue of bugs in Congo. I realize I was remiss not to mention the mango worm. We at Mama Congo would be failing you if we didn't have a post on this infamous creature. Any proper orientation to living in Congo contains the lesson, Mango Worms 101. Here's the short version: they hatch out of your skin.

I neglected this parasite for good reason. In terms of dramatic wildlife experiences, it ranks pretty low. For example, yesterday Adam was 3 inches away from a snake falling from a tree and landing on his shoulders. While I am afraid of real things like rebel groups and ninja terrorists, Adam is afraid of seeing a slithering reptile. Or even knowing they exist. So when one landed with a thud on the concrete behind him, and then proceeded to rear-up and fight off a flock of birds that instantly dive-bombed the poor thing, Adam reached for his smelling salts.

When he got home and I saw his ghost-white face, I knew. "It's raining f-ing snakes," he said. So yeah, pulling a worm out of your skin is amateur hour.

Honestly, it's not really a worm. Here's how it goes down. A mango fly lays eggs on the ground. The larvae crawl around until they come in contact with flesh where they can bury themselves and grow into a more proper worm-like thing, or maggot if you will. Then they hatch out of your skin and go on their merry way. Here's a better explanation (if you care for more detail) including the fact that their scientific name derives from "human eater."

There were 8 segments on this guy. I guess we'll call it a worm. 
If you look real close, you can see the black mouth or eye or something.

It does sound really dramatic. David Sedaris even has a bit where he tells the story of his boyfriend Hugh, who grew up in the Congo, and the worm that came out of his skin. It's the perfect fodder for David Sedaris, story-teller extraordinaire, known exaggerator. (P.S. Can anyone find this story? I can't remember where I first read and/or heard it.)

Getting a mango worm is a rite of Congo passage. It's a great story to tell at home, without having to endure too much actual trauma. You can almost see it in people's eyes: "Do you think I have a mango worm?!" They say with 80% excitement, 20% fear.

Ex-pat friends even post pictures of "Baby's First Mango Worm." I had one when we first got here. It was on the bottom of my foot and I thought it was just another weird pregnancy symptom. They're quite painful, because after all it is something trying to grow inside your skin. I took my foot to my neighbor who had raised two teenage boys in Congo. She claimed she spent her Saturdays taking worms out of their backs. She even had a device for such extraction. This thing, which is also used to pop pimples. Obviously.

A few weeks ago Charlotte hosted her first mango fly babies. One on her back. One on her leg. Because if you needed to burrow in flesh, wouldn't you choose mushy baby thighs? I tried the old missionary trick of smothering them out with Vaseline. We put her to bed with a glob of Vaseline on the spots, and without fail, the next morning their little heads were poking out for air.

If you look very close you can see the tell-tale black dot. The sign of the mango worm.

Maybe someday her boyfriend (or girlfriend, no judgment) can use her story to make millions of literary dollars.

Mango Worm Bonus: While the point of this piece was to debunk the horror of mango worms, you really must check out what happened to our friends' little girl. Seriously. Just. Ugh.


  1. Oh.my.word. This sheltered American is all but dry heaving. I find worms terrifying when coupled with the statement "in your body." And the Bonus feature you shared leaves this mama horrified.

  2. Followed the link to that other post re the little girl---the poor dear!

    Raining snakes---love it.

  3. :( poor babygirls! Not to be that person that's all "look on the bright side" about everything, BUT, I've read litsw if good research that suggests that worm infections help "train" the immune system, so people exposed to worm parasites (i would guess that any larval stage insect counts too) have super low to no incidence if asthma, inflammatory bowl issues, food alergies, and autoimmune disease. So there IS a bright side :) (confession: I'm a biologist/parasitologist, so i get nerdily into this kind of thing. But I'm also compassionate and a mama of 1.5 myself, and on that level, major props for your levelheaded stoey telling!). :)

    1. Thanks for this, Michelle. Johan keeps sending me articles about the interesting relationship between parasites and autoimmune issues. He's stopped short of suggesting purposeful infestation to treat my rheumatoid arthritis, but has said many times that living in Congo is a great health move for us. He's loves a good microbiome, same as you!

  4. shudder. just shudder.
    I'm almost positive that the Sedaris story is in his Essays called Me Talk Pretty One Day. Thats when he moves to Paris with his partner, Hugh and we first hear stories about Hugh's childhood in Africa. I thought he called a "Guinea worm", but I'll have to dig it out again and read it to know for sure.

    1. It could very well be Guinea worm that David writes about. I thought he mentioned Congo and his mom pulling a worm out of his skin, so I assumed Mango. But there's also a good chance I'm inventing my own reality ala David Sedaris.

  5. Sorry, Janette, Guinea Worm is something else entirely. Guinea worm is ingested in surface water, usually in West Africa. It grows out of your intestinal track into your leg and finally makes it way to your ankle. the worm is about 30 inches long usually. Once it reaches your ankle, it makes a lesion or blister. When the blister touches water, it bursts and release worm eggs into the water. During the time when the worm is emerging and making a blister, the pain is basically incapacitating. From there the eggs get into a small fresh-water flea-ish creature called a copepod, which is what you drink to get infected in the first place. I lived in Burkina Faso for three years in the 80's and saw lots of guinea worm infections, but never got it myself, even though I drank lots of pond water. I was just dang lucky.
    Guinea worm infection makes mango worms seem like child's-play. (I also grew up in DR Congo and know about mango worm, I think I had a few as a kid)
    Fortunately, due in part to the efforts of former President Jimmy Carter and money from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, people in west africa have been in recent years filtering their water with fine-mesh nylon screens that filter out the water-flea creatures, hence breaking the cycle. According to many reports, guinea worm has been nearly eradicated in many parts of west africa based on the introduction of mesh water filters. I think it costs about 10 cents US now to make a decent filter, if the mesh is available.
    One of the popular treatments for Guinea worm is/was to wrap the emerging worm around a stick, about 1 cm per day, until you get the whole thing out. But if you break it, you can go into anaphylactic shock and die from it. Just one heck of a nasty business.....

    1. Oh yes. That is a different worm entirely! I've been following this a bit. Here's the latest: http://www.cartercenter.org/health/guinea_worm/mini_site/current.html (Reduced by 99.9%. That's incredible. Thanks, Jimmy!)

  6. Guinea worms are the stuff nightmares are made of, but it sounds like mango worms are a close second. or third, depending on if there are botflies in your area too.. *shudders*

  7. Does it make me weird - or just a nurse - that I really like extracting those little buggers (the mango vs. guinea variety)?

  8. I'm not squeamish and yet I might be traumatized.

  9. I have goosebumps just thinking about it. I read your friends experience and have a new found respect for ex-pats in Africa. You guys are amazing!

  10. I'm with you Jill. I became a go to chiques (burrowing sand fleas) remover for little kids in my Peace Corps village in Gabon. It led to my first lice infection because a little girl could not keep her head from leaning over and touching mine to see what I was doing. A more sensitive friend was traumatized by what she called "giving birth to a mango worm" when she got one from wearing underwear that hadn't dried for the requisite 3 days. Oh how I miss sharing the disgusting stories.

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