Still No Word on What Caused Scabies Outbreak Among Boston TSA Staff

Travel Blog  •  Rob Verger  •  04.15.09 | 10:53 AM ET

Photo of Pohnpei’s airport by Rob Verger

In late March, five TSA workers at Boston’s Logan Airport were infected with scabies, a nasty little bug that literally lives and breeds underneath the host’s skin.

The incident merited a posting on the TSA’s blog, reassuring passengers that there was basically no chance they could have contracted the bugs by going through security. (One of the many reasons why it would have been practically impossible for a passenger to become infected this way is that the TSA screeners wear gloves, and scabies is usually only spread through direct skin-to-skin contact.)

When I contacted the TSA this week to see if they had any leads in how the outbreak began, Ann Davis, the Public Affairs Officer for the TSA in Boston, said via email:

There are still 5 confirmed cases. TSA at Logan Airport has been working closely with the CDC and the Boston Public Health Commission since the first diagnosis.  The Health Commission has followed up each case to confirm the diagnosis and determine if these cases are related. The health experts have endeavored to identify a cause, however, no cause has been identified to date.

The incident caught my eye because in 2006, unbeknownst to me at the time, I carried a terrible case of scabies through Boston’s airport. I had picked it up while living on a Pacific island called Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, teaching English for a semester through an organization called WorldTeach.

In the weeks before I left the island, I had become itchy. A doctor there told me I was fine and, reassured, I got on a plane and came home. I flew from Pohnpei to an island called Chuuk, to Guam, to Hawaii, to Los Angeles, and then home to Boston, where I arrived, exhausted and intensely itchy. Hot showers made it worse, and at night, when the bugs living underneath my skin awoke, I became insane with itchiness. My body had become colonized; the bugs had created little red roads of itchy horror between my fingers. A doctor in Massachusetts diagnosed me, and after two doses of an insecticidal cream called Permethrin—and countless loads of laundry and endless vacuuming—I killed the mites before anyone else became infested. I’m pretty sure I originally contracted the scabies after I lent (and later used myself) a bath towel to an American friend of mine, who had herself become infested via a relationship with a local man.

This is one of the crazy side effects of our modern air travel system: things travel across the enormous and varied landscape of our world like they never have before. With my body as a host and Continental Airlines as a carrier, those Pohnpeian bugs crossed the globe with me, skipping across the surface of the Pacific and eventually alighting in Massachusetts.

Scabies are common throughout the world (and the US) and all socio-economic classes, so the bugs need not come from an exotic location to infest you, and in the case of the TSA outbreak in Boston, there’s no reason to assume the scabies mites came from anywhere other than Boston, although who knows. But it is interesting to think about the bizarre things that are transported, accidentally or not, via airplane.

As for those infested Boston TSA employees? I have nothing but sympathy for them.


Rob Verger

Rob Verger is a frequent contributor to World Hum and the site's former air travel blogger. His articles and photographs have appeared in the Boston Globe and other publications, and he's a former undergraduate writing instructor at Columbia University. If you like, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter.


8 Comments for Still No Word on What Caused Scabies Outbreak Among Boston TSA Staff

Jenna Schnuer 04.15.09 | 11:18 AM ET

OK, itchy just thinking about all of it. Eesh. I hope the TSA folks don’t bug out for too much longer. That sounds really awful.

Rob, of all the sentences I’ve read by you so far (and there have been a bunch), this may very well be my favorite: “In the weeks before I left the island, I had become itchy.”

Rob 04.15.09 | 11:47 AM ET

Thanks so much, Jenna! Just researching and writing the post made me feel itchy again, actually. Thank god I got those bugs killed!

Sophia Dembling 04.15.09 | 12:42 PM ET

Been there, Rob. No idea where I got it. It’s just awful. And the medication smells like it could kill you as quick as it cures you.

Joanna Kakissis 04.15.09 | 5:23 PM ET

Horror! A great and frightening post, Rob. So glad you conquered the Pohnpeian bugs.

JN 04.15.09 | 6:52 PM ET

It actually made me laugh despite being quite frightening! I love the sentence: “With my body as a host and Continental Airlines as a carrier, those Pohnpeian bugs crossed the globe with me, skipping across the surface of the Pacific and eventually alighting in Massachusetts.”

Julia Ross 04.15.09 | 9:14 PM ET

horrifying but somehow entertaining post, Rob.

jd 04.22.09 | 10:47 PM ET

Hi Rob,

Can you post how you kill the mites. I am dealing with scabies now and having a very hard time getting rid of it.  Thank you.

Rob Verger 04.22.09 | 11:24 PM ET

jd,

So sorry to hear you have scabies! As I certainly know, it’s a miserable, itchy, scary experience. But my advice here cannot equal the guidance a doctor can give you. In my case, two doses (a week apart) of the prescription Permethrin cream coupled with obsessive laundry and vacuuming did the trick, in addition to prescription steroids to ease the itching and help me sleep. But if you haven’t been to see a doctor yet, you need to do that right away.

Good luck! best, Rob

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