Paradigm Shifts are Hard to Do: Host Expansion in Mites.
The process of publishing The Year of the Mite has been fascinating.
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.