Dunedin flats' unwelcome visitor: Why scabies are a hot topic at Otago University

The University has had around 300 cases of scabies in the past four months.
The University has had around 300 cases of scabies in the past four months. Photo credit: Getty Images

Scabies is a hot topic for Dunedin students as cases rise - but while the idea of parasitic mites may be concerning it isn't anything new.

While the University of Otago said scabies cases are slightly higher than in previous years, the unwelcome visitors in student flats are not uncommon.

Scabies is a skin infection caused by tiny insects or mites, too small to be seen by the naked eye, that burrow under your skin leaving eggs and faeces that cause a very itchy rash.

It is highly contagious as it spreads through skin-to-skin contact, sharing clothes and bedding and the mites can survive on surfaces for up to two days.

Students told Stuff the last three months had been a "revolving door" of scabies. 

"I'm scared every time I get itchy," a student told the outlet.

"I guess it’s embarrassing because it's literal bugs, creepy crawlies all over your skin. No one wants to touch you, don't want you to come over. It's kind of funny how scared people are of it when everyone gets chlamydia in Dunedin."

"I'm scared every time I get itchy."
"I'm scared every time I get itchy." Photo credit: DermNet NZ

Earlier this week, an Otago University student-run Facebook page called out for students to share their scabies stories for light-hearted relief from the "itch that's better than any antihistamines" which it claimed was out of stock at one of the supermarkets.

Even a Dunedin scabies-dedicated meme page has recently popped up.

But while the current outbreak is making its rounds on both social media and bedsheets, there is no need to panic.

A University of Otago spokesperson told Newshub they first became aware of cases of scabies in the student population in June and emailed advice to all students at that time.

In September, they issued another warning asking students to make sure infected flats all get treated at the same time to stop the spread.

Student Health is aware of around 300 cases of scabies in the past four months and while cases are higher than in previous years they said it is not a cause for undue concern.

A spokesperson said last year the University was aware of 70 cases, likely because of the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in less interaction for scabies to spread.

"We urge any students who have or think they may have been exposed to scabies to manage it

carefully to avoid spread. Information on how to do this was sent to students in June, is on the Student Health Facebook page and can also be found on the Health Navigator New Zealand website."

According to the World Health Organization, Scabies is one of the most common dermatological conditions and globally it is estimated to affect more than 200 million people at any time.

The Ministry of Health said anyone can get scabies - even the cleanest people - so it's advice to treat the pesky mites is for everyone in the house to use a cream or lotion at the same time.