The UK government is to provide funding for medicinal maggots to be sent to war zones such as Syria and Yemen, where they will be used in a back-to-the-future attempt to clean infected wounds. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, the fly larvae – which eat dead human tissue – are a cheap and simple way to keep wounds contamination-free in conflict zones, where access to medical supplies is limited.
The report says the concept is not new – maggots were used to clean wounds by Australian Aborigines – but experts say maggot therapy is under-utilised in war zones, where it is common to die or lose a limb from a secondary infection after even a simple procedure.
The $250,000 project is being part-funded by the Department for International Development from the UK aid budget, and will develop larvae labs for field hospitals to safely breed maggots in a conflict setting. “People living through conflict and humanitarian crisis are still dying from wounds that could so easily be healed with the right access to care,” said Penny Mordaunt, International Development Secretary. “This innovative update on a simple treatment used in the First World War trenches is already saving lives and has the potential to save so many more.”
The report says modern larvae treatment was developed following WWI after a US scientist, William Baer, noticed the benefits of maggots on soldiers wounds. Today the therapy is used in hospitals in developed countries, including the National Health Service (NHS), but they are yet to be used in war zones.
The report says while photos of the maggots at work are unsavoury, the report says the treatment is highly effective. Flies are reared in a lab, where their eggs are sterilised. The hatched maggots are then grown for a day or two, before they are applied to skin and soft tissue wounds either directly or in a biobag, which is wrapped around the injury.
Not only do the maggots remove dead tissue and flesh, but they control infection as their spit and saliva act as a natural disinfectant and promote healing. The maggots can be used to treat anything from burns to bedsores to gunshot wounds, and are left on an injury for two to four days.
“Making people healthy so that they can remain productive members of their community is sometimes almost more important than saving a life,” said Dr Frank Stadler, a research fellow at Griffith University in Australia, the research body behind the project.
“When a father becomes disabled, he can no longer look after his family. When a child becomes disabled, they place an enormous burden on their family.”
The report says most commonly, Greenbottle Blowflies are used in maggot therapy. While many other species can be effective, their preferred diet must be dead tissue, not living flesh. To ensure infections do not spread the maggots are not reused, but are disposed of in clinical waste after the therapy. But if some larvae escape incarceration and flee to the wild, they are extremely unlikely to spread any infection – when maggots become flies, they undergo their own process of sterilisation.
Stadler said his team hope to create a prototype containment lab to allow field hospitals in war zones to breed medicinal maggots within a year, which will provide enough larvae to treat 250 wounds a day. The containment labs are estimated to cost around $100,000 (£57,000) each, and it is hoped they will prevent life-threatening infections in countries including Syria and South Sudan. “If you consider the surgical cost of field operations and the shipment of antibiotics, then over time this one-off cost would more than pay for itself,” said Stadler. By the end of 2021, the team aim to have also created ‘Do-it-yourself’ kits so isolated communities can sustainably breed their own medicinal maggots from starter colonies.
The project is one of 23 which have received grants from the Grand Humanitarian Challenge, a joint venture with UK, US and Netherlands governments to invest in novel innovations to be used in war zones and humanitarian crises. “I am proud that through the Humanitarian Grand Challenges and with the support of USAID, UK aid is nurturing pioneering ideas that will allow us to deliver aid more effectively now and in the future,” said Mordaunt is quoted in the report as saying.The Daily Telegraph report