The Shifting Ethics of Mite Fighting

People with parasitic mites all need help in some form or other, and it is difficult to get help without putting others at risk. You escape to a hotel for a night: how do you know your sheets will be thoroughly washed? You throw something out: how do you know no one else will scavenge and use it? You sell your house: even if you disclose, how do you know how the buyers will be affected?

I am convinced we are living at the end of the dark age of mite infestation. Already there are researchers using direct DNA detection on non-parasitic face mites like Demodex folluculorum, who have found ten times the incidence previously believed. Other entomologists are starting to write about the medical impact of parasitic mites like Dermanyssus gallinae. It’s only a matter of time until the two research streams come together and we get to a parasitic mite DNA detection kit for use on humans.

At the same time, other biologists are using the DNA fish leave behind as they swim in rivers (called eDNA, for environmental DNA) to tell which species have swum by. It turns out every organism leaves trace nucleic acids in the environment as it passes. Once that technique is applied to locating parasitic mites in the home, the era of relying on ineffective glue traps will be over.

These developments will be wonderful in several ways. They will end the scourge of misdiagnosis with delusional parasitosis, which has been fueled by lack of real data. Accurate medical and environmental measurements of parasitic mite infestations will enable people with mites to advocate for more research funding, and to take better advantage of the limited treatments that currently exist.

But on the flip side, it may be tough to persuade others to help when the risks are well defined. The therapist who thought you were imagining things may suddenly start worrying you will infest the upholstery in her office. The contractor who comes to haul away your carpeting may turn down the work.

It is incredibly frustrating not to be believed. Real data will usher in a new era. But in the first stages, when the reality of parasitic mites is better understood and before there are better treatments, people with mites will not be able to hide behind the ignorance of others. It will be a far better problem than the ones they face today.

Host Expansion in Mites.

Paradigm Shifts are Hard to Do: Host Expansion in Mites.

The process of publishing The Year of the Mite has been fascinating.

Year of the Mite Book Cover

This story is based on a year in the life of an American family.

The support from our community is terrific.  And in that community I include not only folks who have (or have had) parasitic mites, but also the many professionals whose mite paradigm has already shifted. And make no mistake: a shift is happening.  It started in 1958, when entomologists published an article about isolation of human blood cells in the guts of chicken mites in a New York City apartment.  For those who read it, that professional journal article moved the conversation from “chicken mites don’t bite people,” to “chicken mites can’t reproduce while feeding on human blood.” At last, host expansion in mites starts to be recognized.

The ground shifted again with the 2015 publication of the David Green article in Parasite and Vector regarding the ability of what we call “chicken mites” to change host species.  These mites are quite adaptable to new host species — a process called “host expansion.”  A whole group of entomologists published those findings.  Those of us who have had parasitic mites quite agree.

Like many paradigm shifts, this one is happening slowly, and it is not happening evenly across the board.  While obtaining permission for the quotes in The Year of the Mite, I encountered one author who refused to grant permission to use an informative quotation from an agricultural bulletin.  This scientist told me he frequently heard from people who claim to have mites, and that what I alleged about mite behavior on humans was impossible.

I found that attitude troubling in two respects.  First, I doubt that a word like “impossible” furthers the scientific goal of exploring the universe with an open mind.  At its best, science offers a terrific opportunity to ask questions and learn more about existence, with no agenda, no ax to grind.

Second, as a mite survivor, I am concerned when I  encounter professionals who deny the possibility that the evidence of my senses, along with parasitic mites collected in the environment, reflected an objective phenomenon.  I am especially concerned for the health and safety of people who still have mites.  And I know that folks with parasitic mites are out there – many write to me at this site, and on my Facebook page.

On the other hand, science runs on data, and data about parasitic mite infestation is tough to come by.  Mites are rapidly moving organisms, many translucent, and many the size of the point of a pin.  The good news is, this lack of data may be ripe for change.  Researchers who study face mites have developed a new way to collect mite DNA from the faces of people with these scavenger mites, and then sequence the mite DNA to distinguish it from host DNA.  Using these methods, scientists have raised the estimate of people with face mites from a small minority to almost 100% of humans.

This same method could be used to collect parasitic mites.  Collection of Dermanyssus gallinae from the skin of people with parasitic mites would shift the conversation yet again, to make it clear what species of mites inhabit a human host.

Paradigm shifts are hard to do.  But the good news is that in science, data eventually wins.  For the sake of people with parasitic mites, the next phase in this shift can’t happen soon enough.