Bitten by an iguana? You could get a rare bacterial infection, new study says

Iguanas, those pesky green critters that come out in full force during the summer months in South Florida, are more than just a nuisance. They also pose health risks.

While touching an iguana or its feces can cause salmonella, a new Centers of Disease Control & Prevention report links an iguana’s bite to a rare bacterial infection called mycobacterium marinum.

The discovery came after a  3-year-old girl from San Jose and her family had taken a trip to Costa Rica. While eating cake on the beach, an iguana snapped it out of her left hand and bit her. The girl was immediately taken to a local clinic and found to have a superficial bite for which doctors gave her a five-day course of oral amoxicillin. But five months later, a cyst appeared.

After it was removed and biopsied, scientists took a closer look at the growth in the lab and discovered that the child had a rare infection caused by the bite. That type of infection usually infects humans only after a wound has been exposed to the bacteria in water.

Most antibiotics alone don’t typically work on mycobacterium marinum, so doctors put the girl on rifampin, an antimicrobial, and clarithromycin, an antibiotic often used for skin infections. A report shows the infection responded well to the treatment.

Dr. Jordan Mah, the author of the report that will appear in the June 2023 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, CDC’s monthly peer-reviewed public health journal, said it’s not unusual for it to take a few months for a growth to surface. Usually mycobacterium marinum is assoiated with snake bites, he said.

“The course this pathogen takes with this infection happens over a period of time,” said Mah, an expert in medical microbiology who worked at the lab that tested the cyst as a part of the Department of Pathology at Stanford University.

“I think the key thing is not to feed these animals so they don’t get used to associating humans with food,” he said. “I am pretty sure people on the beach fed him and it led to him biting the child to get food.”

Iguanas, particularly the green ones plentiful in South Florida, are herbivores and feed on foliage, flowers and fruit. Some will eat animal material such as insects, lizards, and other small animals, nesting birds and eggs.

Tom Portuallo, owner of Iguana Control, said South Floridians are seeing more iguanas than usual for this type of year because of the unusually warm winter.

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