It has been more than fifty years since human erythrocytes were first identified in the gut of a Dermanyssus gallinae (red poultry mite) in a New York City apartment. The journal article that disclosed this finding is interesting not only for its scientific content but also for what it tells us about the history of scientific attitudes about mites as human parasites. The abstract of the article states, in part:
“Although a marked clinical dermatitis is common in some individuals that become closely associated with the bird mite, Dermanyssus gallinae, the literature presents little evidence that this mite will ingest human blood and many investigators feel that this species will never ingest it.”
The unfortunate reality is that, half a century later, persons with parasitic mites still encounter helping professionals who emphatically dismiss this public health issue.
While skepticism is an important part of the scientific method, the refusal to entertain the possibility of this health problem is profoundly unscientific. When scientists maintain that parasitic mite infestation of humans is “impossible,” they fail to ask the questions and perform the studies that could demonstrate the reality of this problem. For example, recent studies of non-parasitic Demodex face mites using polymerase chain reaction have increased the estimated infestation rate from about 8% of humans to 100% of humans. This is academically interesting, but the improved methods are still not used for persons who experience parasitic mite infestation. If in fact there is more than a 90% false positive rate using the old methods, then by far the majority of people with these mites are not receiving the care they need.
Lacking valid collection methods, the numbers of persons with parasitic mites remain unknown and are likely underestimated. This in turn leads to underfunding research into diagnosis and treatment.
Reliance on poor diagnostic methods for parasitic mites also leads to false diagnoses of delusional parasitosis. An article in Clinical Microbiological Review states that delusional parasitosis “is characterized by the fixed belief of being infested with pathogens against all medical evidence.” If, however, the “medical evidence” is based on testing with a very high false negative rate, then the psychological diagnosis is a house built on quicksand.
For persons with parasitic mites, the mite fight is not just against the arthropods that bite them. Affected individuals must also grapple with helping professionals who, despite best intentions, often do more harm than good.
Fifty years ago, when that journal article about human blood cells in mite guts was published, each person with parasitic mites faced those unfortunate attitudes alone. With no community of fellow survivors, the experience must have been incredibly isolating.
Fortunately, times are changing. There is an online community of people facing the challenge of eliminating a parasitic mite infestation. There are moves in the direction of a patient advocacy organization, a much-needed step. In the absence of necessary research, people with parasitic mites are sharing what works for them (as in the protocols on this website and in the book version of The Year of the Mite). And just as importantly, there are professionals in several fields who take this public health issue seriously. That means the potential for more organized research along with increased credibility for those who have parasitic mites.
There is an online meme that advises: Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it. A lot of time has passed since that 1958 article. It is time to open minds, to use the scientific method to study this problem. Too many have suffered too much for too many years.