Vacation horror: 'Dozens of worms in my feet'
Windsor residents Eddie Zytner and his girlfriend Katie Stephens need crutches after both contracted the parasitic condition called cutaneous larva migrans – hookworms – on a vacation in the Dominican Republic in January 2018. (NICK BRANCACCIO/Windsor Star)
Windsor couple Eddie Zytner and Katie Stephens can’t help but regret a recent trip to the Caribbean — but so would anybody who came home with parasites burrowing in their feet.
“I have dozens of worms in my feet, and so does Katie,” said Zytner, 25, on Friday. “It’s kind of sickening to think about.”
Stephens, 22, added: “It’s pretty gross. It’s something living in your body that’s not supposed to be there.”
Both Zytner and his girlfriend Stephens are currently suffering from cutaneous larva migrans — better known as hookworms.
The disease is typically contracted in tropical environments by walking barefoot in sand or on moist soil. Near-microscopic nematode larvae enter mammalian hosts by migrating through the skin.
Zytner said he and Stephens walked barefoot on beaches from the very first day of their week-long stay at the IFA Villas Bavaro All-Inclusive Resort and Spa on Playa Bavaro in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
An official at the hotel, who declined to give her name when contacted Friday, said the resort has received no other inquiries or complaints about hook worms or guests complaining of itchy feet. The Star is unaware of any other vacationers to the region reporting similar problems.
Although they experienced some irritation during their trip, it wasn’t until they returned to Windsor on Jan. 18 that the infection manifested and their feet took a grotesque turn.
“The symptoms really started to pick up,” Zytner said. “The itchiness was unbearable. We were scratching pretty much non-stop.”
In a matter of days, Zytner and Stephens’ feet deteriorated into messes of swollen flesh, weeping blisters, and torturous red tracks showing where the worms had travelled.
Stephens said she later learned that scratching worsens the worms’ activity. Soon, she and Zytner found it impossible to wear socks or shoes, and needed help walking.
“I started to freak out,” Stephens admitted.
The frantic couple made repeat visits to the hospital to find out what was wrong, but it wasn’t until Jan. 22 that an emergency room doctor recognized the signs of cutaneous larva migrans.
Even after diagnosis, more frustration awaited them. Zytner said the medications that are used to treat hookworms are not licensed for sale in this country: Health Canada has put ivermectin and albendazole on its Special Access Programme, meaning that they can only be obtained by federal approval on a case-by-case basis.
Zytner said his request for the drugs was denied. “They said our case wasn’t severe enough to get the medication.”
“I don’t know how much worse it has to be for them to approve it. People have passed away from (parasitic infections).”
Fortunately, a connection with a doctor possessing a dual-nation license allowed Zytner and Stephens to quickly get the medications they needed in the U.S.
Now the couple are busy recovering. They had yet another doctor’s appointment on Friday. “It was a lot worse in the earlier stages,” Zytner said. “Our blisters have gone down quite a bit … The worms are dead by now. Or they should be.”
The couple both need crutches to get around. They’ve been told the infection should subside in a few weeks, but healing the skin damage could take months.
“This has kind of turned us off from wanting to travel anywhere,” Zytner admitted. “It’s definitely scary.”
“We’d never heard of having to wear shoes on a beach. We never thought this could happen.”
And if anyone presumes this to be an isolated case: Zytner said he and Stephens have been in touch with a couple from the Niagara region who they met at the resort.
The Niagara couple are also currently suffering cutaneous larva migrans.
“They have the exact same thing,” Zytner said. “And they were also denied by Health Canada for access to the drugs.”