Sterile Flies Next Step In Fighting Screwworm Infestation In Florida Keys

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – State Agricultural officers are inspecting all dogs and other animals coming out of the Florida Keys. They’re looking for signs of a screwworm infection that is killing the endangered Key Deer.

The New World screwworm, is threatening the Key deer that live solely on the islands from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key and a few small surrounding islands.

The screwworm, or fly larvae, are attracted to animal wounds where eggs are laid and worms hatch inside the wound. A devastating infection follows and Key Deer are the most vulnerable.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsey’s deputies get calls about sick Key Deer.

“You see the top of the Key Deers head like a bowl shape like someone carved it out. You can tell it is suffering, wandering, bashing walls. It breaks your heart. It is so sad,” said Ramsey.

This Key deer was infected by the "screwworm" parasite. (Source: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services/Monroe County)

This Key deer was infected by the “screwworm” parasite. (Source: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services/Monroe County)

The tiny deer, a tourist favorite only found in this part of the world, are usually discovered with the infection after it is way too late. Sixty deer have died already.

The task at hand is to keep the screwworm spread isolated to the Florida Keys. That’s why inspectors are making sure they look at any warm-blooded animal coming out of the area and heading North.

The next move includes agricultural officials releasing sterile screwworm flies to fight the spread.

“They are not modified or engineered in anyway other than to be sterilized,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.

This means the flies mate but produce no eggs and for good reason. If the screwworm spreads to Florida’s cattle industry, the state would face economic disaster.

“It could impact the rest of the state with quarantine, if it spreads into the remainder of Florida,” said Putnam.

New World screwworms are fly larvae (maggots) that infest warm-blooded animals, including people. They most often enter through an open wound and feed on the animal’s living flesh.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has established an Animal Health Check Zone at mile marker 91 south. Animals traveling north will be given health checks at a station located at mile marker 106 to ensure that they do not have screwworm.

Residents with warm-blooded animals, like pets and livestock, are urged to watch them carefully and report any potential cases to 1-800-HELP-FLA (1-800-435-7352). Non-Florida residents can call (850) 410-3800.

More from Hank Tester

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