14 Cattle Worms Found in Woman’s Eye, First Case Ever Reported

Thelazia gulosa, a parasitic worm that were only thought to breed in cattle’s eyeballs, were found in an Oregon woman's eye. This is the first case ever reported. ( John Hoyt, Oregon Health & Science University )

A woman in Oregon had the first diagnosed case of an eye worm parasite infection that was thought to only impact cattle.

In 2016, Abby Beckley, 26 years old at the time had 14 worms removed from her eye by doctors after experiencing irritation in her left eye. The worms were discovered to be Thelazia gulosa, a parasitic worm that is known to breed in cattle’s eyeballs, thus earning the nickname “the cattle eyeworm.” The eyeworms are spread by face flies and are typically found in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. 

The case was just reported in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene on Feb. 12. Two other species of Thelazia had previously been identified as infecting humans, but this was the first for the cattle eyeworm.

“This is a very rare event and exciting from a parasitological perspective,” said medical parasitologist Richard Bradbury of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. “Perhaps not so exciting if you are the patient.”

Beckley first pulled a worm out of her eye while working on a salmon fishing boat in Alaska during August 2016.

“I pulled that worm out and I just was shocked. I was absolutely shocked,” Beckley shared with the Associated Press. “I stared at it and it was alive.”

The remaining worms were removed from Beckley’s eye during a 20 day period.

Earlier in the summer of 2016, Beckley visited a cattle ranch near Gold Beach, Oregon. It is believed that Beckley got the worms from a face fly as she was walking or riding horseback through a pasture.

Erin Bonura, infectious disease specialist and assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University, worked with Beckley on the case and reported it to the CDC.

There was no treatment to get the worms from Beckley’s eye because killing the worms would leave them in the eye and possibly cause an infection. Bonura says the best option was to extract the worms.

Because the case is so rare Bonura does not believe cattle producers and other people should worry.

“This is a very rare instance,” Bonura told The Oregonian. “I don't think other people should be worried.”