Photograph by Hector Skevington-Postles
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Photographer Charlie Hamilton James in the small native village of Alto Timpia, in Peru’s Amazon rainforest. He suspects this village is where he caught the flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis. Here Hamilton James drinks ‘mosato’, a drink made of chewed up and spat out manioc root.
Photograph by Hector Skevington-Postles

Charlie Hamilton James: The Disgusting Disease Diaries, Part One

The Proof blog takes you behind the scenes to tell the stories of what’s glamorous, and what’s definitely not, about being on assignment for National Geographic.

In this two-part tale, photographer and documentarian Charlie Hamilton James tells the story of contracting not one, but two, rare and repulsive maladies while traveling on assignment in the Amazon—a botfly, and the flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis.

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Charlie Hamilton James filming in Manu National Park.

When I come back from travels around the world I tend to try and bring back gifts for the kids, a bottle of perfume for my wife and occasionally a bottle of something for myself. This year however I bought back a flesh eating disease—Leishmaniasis.

I had been working in the Peruvian Amazon making a television series for the BBC and shooting a few stills for my current National Geographic magazine assignment. The shoot was quite an intense 6-week trip starting in Acre in Brazil, and ending up in a very remote part of the Amazon in eastern Peru—up the Urubamba River. It’s this last bit of the trip where I suspect I contracted the flesh-eater.

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Roberto and Erin in the small native community of Alto Timpia, where Hamilton James suspects he caught the flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis.

I generally cover up pretty well in the Amazon. You have to—there are so many creatures trying to feed off you that you very quickly become a blood bank if you don’t have long sleeves and trousers on. The list of biting and stinging bugs in one area I was working looked like this: mosquitos, biting flies, ticks, chiggers, sand flies, ants, bees, wasps. I’ve played host to most of these creatures.

This wasn’t my first experience with a rare disorder—in 2012, also while working in the Amazon, I got a botfly in my head. Weirdly I’ve always had a fascination with botflies. Their life cycle is bizarre. The adult botfly, which looks like a slightly stumpy, stocky housefly; catches a mosquito. It then holds onto it whilst laying eggs on the mosquito, before releasing it. The mosquito then, in turn, lands on a human or animal to suck their blood and the warmth of the host causes the eggs to release from the mosquito and drop onto the skin; where the botfly larvae hatch and burrow in. It’s the needling sensation in the skin, as the botfly larvae snacks on the host, that first alerts the carrier to their new hitchhiker.

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With a shaved and infected scalp, Charlie Hamilton James waits for his wife, Philippa Forrester, to try to extract a live botfly larvae from his head in 2012.

As the larvae grows it continues to feed on the subcutaneous tissue surrounding the hole it’s made for itself. I decided that despite the irritation I would try and keep my botfly in as long as possible—maybe even the eight weeks it needed to fully grow. My wife however wasn’t too enamored with the idea, and my constant moaning as my scalp was routinely eaten didn’t help either. In the end we decided to get the thing out.

There are many ways of removing botflies from the human body; all seem pretty tricky and in my case very painful. I opted not to go to the doctor; I figured doctors in rural southwest England don’t see many cases of botflies and might complicate issues. Instead the job fell to my wife and her long nails.

Unfortunately the botfly larvae didn’t want to budge. We realized that we’d have to suffocate it first, otherwise they hold on in their hole. So my wife, Philippa, shaved a large chunk of my hair off my scalp; so she could put plaster over the breathing holes of the larvae and asphyxiate it. By the time she finished I looked very strange—a bit like I’d been attacked by a crazed woman with a pair of hair clippers. Not ideal as I had to present a live TV show for the BBC that week. I wore a hat!

NOTE: The video below contains scenes of a live botfly removal, which may be disturbing to some viewers.

Philippa got the beast out though and it was very impressive—very small but a beautifully designed little maggot, ringed with black backward facing spines to anchor it into my head.

Charlie Hamilton James is a British photojournalist and television presenter. He also runs a production company with his wife Philippa Forrester specializing in wildlife films. His work on Britain’s otters was published in National Geographic in February 2013, and he will be working on an upcoming story about vultures for the magazine.