Travelling to a beach? Pack water shoes
Ontario vacationers’ feet infested with hookworms after walking barefoot during Caribbean holiday
“I SWEAR I COULD FEEL THEM MOVING.” Tara Benedek, vacationer
Seven Mile Beach in Negril, Jamaica, is “legendary for its silky white sands,” proclaims a hotel website.
But for four friends who spent a week at the beach resort last month, those sands yielded a hidden horror: hookworms that attacked their feet and disrupted their lives for weeks.
Within days of her return home in mid-october, Tara Benedek says she developed vibrant red squiggly lines accompanied by excruciating itchiness and burning in her feet. She was left in tears and unable to sleep.
“I swear I could feel them moving,” recalls the registered nurse from Oro-medonte near Barrie, Ont. “If there was a saw by my bed, I would have taken my feet off.”
Two weeks later she was still off work and unavailable to her family due to exhaustion from “zero sleep.”
Benedek and three others from a group of 20 friends who vacationed in Negril had become unwitting hosts to a parasite called cutaneous larva migrans or hookworm — named for its hooklike mouth parts. Normally found in the innards of infected dogs and cats, the worms can burrow into human skin that comes in contact with sand contaminated by feces containing larvae.
“They migrate around the skin saying ‘where the hell are we?’ ” says Dr. Jay Keystone, a travel and tropical medicine specialist in Toronto.
In addition to agonizing itchiness, the infection can cause swelling, blisters and insomnia from the constant torment.
A secondary infection can occasionally set in but otherwise the worms don’t cause serious problems or find their way into human intestines, says Keystone. Left alone, they eventually die but that can take months, he adds.
Ivermectin, an oral medication used to treat the infection, has only just come on the market in Canada, says Keystone, who hopes it will be widely available at pharmacies in a month or two.
He recommends avoiding contact with sand or soil by wearing water shoes on the beach — sandals are no help — and lying on a lounge chair rather than directly on the sand. There’s no preventive medication for hookworm.
The infection is “very common,” with dozens of vacationers, usually from the Caribbean, showing up at Toronto General Hospital’s Tropical Disease Unit over the fall and winter travel season, Keystone says.
That’s where Benedek and her friends ended up after their quest for treatment opened a whole other can of worms when family doctors and walk-in clinics proved incapable of properly diagnosing or treating the affliction.
“Even the physicians we dealt with were googling it,” says Benedek.
“I’ll never, ever walk barefoot on the beach again,” swears Benedek. Read more at thestar.com/health
Tara Benedek, left, and Brigitte May are two of a group of friends who returned home from a Jamaican vacation with hookworm parasite infections in their feet. The itchiness from the worms under their skin was almost unbearable.