34 votes

America's never-ending battle against flesh-eating worms

9 comments

  1. [3]
    R3qn65
    Link
    This is such a cool article. Thank you for sharing it.

    This is such a cool article. Thank you for sharing it.

    10 votes
    1. fefellama
      Link Parent
      Seriously, every part of it was super fascinating, from the historical background of the worms and their impact on agriculture in the US, to the vivid descriptions of the smells in the breeding...

      Seriously, every part of it was super fascinating, from the historical background of the worms and their impact on agriculture in the US, to the vivid descriptions of the smells in the breeding facilities, to a pilot named Michael Jackson.

      10 votes
    2. Wolf_359
      Link Parent
      I don't subscribe to the Atlantic myself, but I have always been pretty blown away by their long-form content when I encounter it. As I type this, I'm wondering if I should make them a regular...

      I don't subscribe to the Atlantic myself, but I have always been pretty blown away by their long-form content when I encounter it.

      As I type this, I'm wondering if I should make them a regular part of my media diet. I think the best article I've ever read in my life might be the article they published on Malaysia Airline's missing MH370.

      Apparently it came out in 2019 and it's an article I still think about from time to time 5 years later.

      5 votes
  2. [3]
    xk3
    (edited )
    Link
    : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dari%C3%A9n_Gap#Pan-American_Highway Edit: Sorry I was confusing this with foot-and-mouth disease: https://www.gao.gov/assets/psad-77-154.pdf

    This is one big reason why there is no road between Central and South America. The Darian Gap, the 125 miles of jungle with no road, between Panama and Columbia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dari%C3%A9n_Gap#Pan-American_Highway

    Edit: Sorry I was confusing this with foot-and-mouth disease: https://www.gao.gov/assets/psad-77-154.pdf

    7 votes
    1. [2]
      Wolf_359
      Link Parent
      Wow that's actually pretty interesting by itself. America's relationship with South and Central America in general is fascinating. Unfortunately, a lot of the very real problems America faces with...

      Wow that's actually pretty interesting by itself.

      America's relationship with South and Central America in general is fascinating. Unfortunately, a lot of the very real problems America faces with regard to our Southern neighbors (and the problems they face from neighboring us) are hard to talk about because of the all racism and hateful rhetoric surrounding our border and immigration policies.

      I really like when we get a chance to just look at these things from a purely academic perspective. In this case, America seems to actually be helping them as well by trying to keep the screw worms and diseases in check.

      1 vote
      1. xk3
        Link Parent
        I added a link to an interesting primary source:

        I added a link to an interesting primary source:

        August 15, 1977
        Completion of the Darien Gap Highway, the final link of the Pan American Highway system located in Panama and Colombia, is currently dependent upon establishing successful control of foot-and-mouth disease in Colombia.

        After 3 years of cooperation between the United States and Colombia, mostly at U.S. expense, little has been achieved. Findings/Conclusions: Safeguards outlined in a 1973 cooperative agreement have not been implemented, and there were more outbreaks of the disease reported in 1976 than in either 1974 or 1975. There is no assurance that the Colombians are fully committed to the foot-and-mouth disease eradication program.

        Recommendations: The Secretary of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Secretary of State, should develop an overall plan that sets forth realistic target dates for eradicating and controlling foot-and-mouth disease within the existing program area of Colombia to the extent that the disease would no longer pose a threat for transmission northward via the Pan American Highway system. The plan should also provide for the commitment by Colombia of sufficient resources that will assure its willingness to participate in a control program following the eradication and control of the disease from the program areas in Colombia. Because control of the disease is also important to the Central American countries and Mexico, consideration should be given to involving them in the planning and financing of control and eradication programs in Colombia.

        1 vote
  3. [2]
    Zorind
    Link
    I thought there was a Tom Scott video about this, but nope - it’s a completely different prevention program (for Mediterranean Fruit Flies). But maybe similar enough to be an interesting/related...

    I thought there was a Tom Scott video about this, but nope - it’s a completely different prevention program (for Mediterranean Fruit Flies). But maybe similar enough to be an interesting/related watch.

    https://youtu.be/Zl_5LT2fzak?si=MmrtSIyBUAyLYWhC

    7 votes
    1. AevumDecessus
      Link Parent
      That other effort is even mentioned in the article

      That other effort is even mentioned in the article

      Over the years, the success of screwworm eradication has inspired scientists to apply the sterile-insect technique to other agricultural pests such as the Mexican fruit fly, the Mediterraean fruit fly, and the pink bollworm.

      3 votes
  4. skybrian
    Link
    From the article: ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

    From the article:

    Screwworms once killed millions of dollars’ worth of cattle a year in the southern U.S. Their range extended from Florida to California, and they infected any living, warm-blooded animal: not only cattle but deer, squirrels, pets, and even the occasional human. In fact, the screwworm’s scientific name is C. hominivorax or “man eater”—so named after a horrific outbreak among prisoners on Devil’s Island, an infamous 19th-century French penal colony in South America.

    For untold millennia, screwworms were a grisly fact of life in the Americas. In the 1950s, however, U.S. ranchers began to envision a new status quo. They dared to dream of an entire country free of screwworms. At their urging, the United States Department of Agriculture undertook what would ultimately become an immense, multidecade effort to wipe out the screwworms, first in the U.S. and then in Mexico and Central America—all the way down to the narrow strip of land that is the Isthmus of Panama. The eradication was a resounding success. But the story does not end there. Containing a disease is one thing. Keeping it contained is another thing entirely, as the coronavirus pandemic is now so dramatically demonstrating.

    To get the screwworms out, the USDA to this day maintains an international screwworm barrier along the Panama-Colombia border. The barrier is an invisible one, and it is kept in place by constant human effort. Every week, planes drop 14.7 million sterilized screwworms over the rainforest that divides the two countries. A screwworm-rearing plant operates 24/7 in Panama. Inspectors cover thousands of square miles by motorcycle, boat, and horseback, searching for stray screwworm infections north of the border. The slightest oversight could undo all the work that came before.

    ...

    A transcontinental screwworm barrier has been in place for 50 years—longer than many of the people who now maintain it have been alive. They work for a joint commission of Panama’s agricultural department and the USDA known as COPEG, or the Comisión Panamá–Estados Unidos para la Erradicación y Prevención del Gusano Barrenador del Ganado. The day before I landed at Tocumen International Airport, two small COPEG planes had taken off and released their precious loads of screwworms over the Panama-Colombia border.

    ...

    In the early days of the eradication effort, USDA scientists were not so certain of success—or longevity. They had to bootleg money from other programs because they didn’t have enough funding. In press interviews, they worried about what laughingstocks they’d be if their “idiotic insect-sex scheme” failed and, God forbid, became an extremely mockable symbol of government waste.

    ...

    The U.S. government’s decision to eradicate screwworms in Central America was ultimately about money. Protecting American livestock by dropping sterile flies over the narrow 50-mile Isthmus of Panama is cheaper than maintaining a barrier, even a virtual one, along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

    ...

    The U.S. had officially declared victory over the screwworm in 1966, but the barrier of sterile flies it established on the U.S.-Mexico border quickly proved ineffective. Ranchers in the U.S. Southwest continued to see outbreaks. With Mexico’s cooperation, the eradication front moved south to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where Mexico narrows to 120 miles. The two countries split the bill based on the value of the livestock that would benefit in each country: 80 percent U.S., 20 percent Mexico.

    In 1985, USDA scientists proposed moving the barrier south again—to the even narrower Isthmus of Panama, where it would be cheaper to maintain. But it would require convincing the governments of seven more countries to agree to—and help pay for—screwworm eradication.

    ...

    The eradication effort did have enthusiastic local allies, Wyss told me: Livestock owners in every country loved the idea. The negotiations went slowly, but by 1994, all of the countries had signed cooperative agreements with the U.S.

    ...

    The screwworm program costs $15 million a year, a small fraction of the estimated $796 million a year that it saves American farmers. (That estimate, from 1996, is equivalent to $1.3 billion in today’s dollars.) Still, the program is constantly looking for ways to cut costs. At the production facility, Phillips showed me prototypes of small, climate-controlled rearing cabinets, which could eliminate the need to heat or cool entire rooms. Biologists are also developing a genetically modified male-only strain of screwworms, which would require fewer flies to be raised and released. A cheaper program is a more sustainable one, and sustainability is essential.

    ...

    The wildlife were not as easy to spot from the plane, but their lives would also be altered by our flight. Welch had told me that howler monkeys in Panama sometimes fell from trees after screwworms ate out their eyes. That doesn’t happen anymore. Jaguars, sloths, tapirs, horses, coyotes, buffalo, rabbits, and squirrels up and down the North American continent are now spared from screwworms too. In the U.S., the main ecological consequence of eradication has been a dramatic increase in the wild-deer population, which once fluctuated with screwworm numbers. The parasite used to kill a large proportion of newborn fawns, whose unhealed belly buttons were open wounds. In the Keys, the recent screwworm outbreak became obvious during mating season, when males began fighting one another with their antlers. Their small, usually harmless nicks and cuts turned large and horrific once screwworms invaded them.

    3 votes