• January 23, 2014

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.

Picture of Charlie Hamilton James filming in Manu National Park.
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.

Picture of a small village in the Amazon.
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.

Picture of botfly removal.
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.

Next up: The flesh-eating disease and the very terrible treatment.

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.


There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Glyn Hannaford
    July 18, 2016

    Great movie – thanks for posting! 🙂
    Ps We have not seen Philippa on the telly for ages, has she retired?

  2. Rey
    February 4, 2014

    Nice to see a lovely and very supportive family.

  3. Shane Copeland
    January 25, 2014

    I have seen some programs on TV that shows applying a layer of petroleum jelly over the hole where the larva is in. They have to breathe and this causes them to surface for air where upon coming up through the jelly the doctor has better access to grabbing it. All the best to you in you future journeys. Hopefully you will not have to encounter this again.

  4. Sarvesh Shenoy
    January 24, 2014

    Sir, your dedication is most commendable. The support you enjoy from your family is also rare. Hope you visit India sometime.

  5. Misti bushell
    January 24, 2014

    I laughed. I loved it. Most of all I have huge admiration for your wife, she and I would get along famously, shame I currently live in the SE UK

  6. James
    January 24, 2014

    I have loads of botflies while I was in the Amazon. They’re nothing to write a blog about.

  7. Tessan
    January 24, 2014

    Wow! So cool to witness! Strong of you to make a small documentary of your own suffering! It’s really nice to learn tough that this bug isn’t dangerous even if it’s hurtful…

    January 24, 2014

    thats a true life…..free from all kinds of worry

  9. Anton Sharwanand Peries
    January 24, 2014

    Wow, I feel the curiosity to know new things, how they work, your courage and your passion for the job makes you unique. All the best

  10. Danny Mendoza
    January 23, 2014

    What a courageous experience of sacrificing yourself for your work. God bless you and your family.

  11. hetal
    January 23, 2014

    your passion for your work is great and greater is support from ur wife, kid and family
    it amazes me how few people like you gets courage to go beyond the limit
    god bless you !

  12. Jean Lehmann
    January 23, 2014

    Dear Mr. Hamilton James, Thank you for enlightening me about these interesting parasites. I am glad I am not about to enjoy a meal. I admire the work you are dedicated to, but I would suggest you keep your main focus on Britain’s otters;) I wish you only good health!

  13. Rich Davidson
    January 23, 2014

    Whoa!! Very pleased my daughter did NOT bring any bugs home from her 6.5 mo solo trip round this planet! Please see her pic blog @ KariDavidson.com

  14. Fabiano Silva
    January 23, 2014

    The tradition in Brazil is to remove it using a piece of Bacon or other fat. The worm come out to breath and leave the body. Much less paintfull. Try next time.

  15. Alice Flanders
    January 23, 2014

    I had experience with botflys in a rabbit. I had a rabbit with large bumps all over her. I squeezed one and out came a worm type creature. I contacted a lady who worked for the Univ of New Hampshire and asked her to find out what it was. It was a horse nose botfly.

  16. ginette tremblay
    January 23, 2014

    wow courageous people!

  17. arangel
    January 23, 2014

    Just curious if what will happen if somebody have it without knowing growing up to their body? Thanks for sharing and given us some ideas…God bless you and your family..

  18. shovaram Devkota
    January 23, 2014

    very easily and carefully home treatment has done,it is the situation of village area of Nepal

  19. Sally DeMasi
    January 23, 2014

    Know the feeling. I paddling down the Amazon with a guide, camping, and observed his dish washing technique – body soap on dishes, a swish in the river -as he declared “clean dishes.” NOT – I got every imaginable disease there including scabies, ticks, intestinal stuff. I’ve written about it in my new eBook “Courage Quest” – links to selling sites on my http://www.couragequest.net blog with loads of photos you might enjoy!
    Liked your story because most people don’t write about the reality of our trips – but always long for just one more – Sally

  20. Hector Silva
    January 23, 2014

    You are amazing and you are blessed with a very brave wife I felt your pain as she was digging in your wound Thank you for sharing and good luck

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