Leeches are making a slimy comeback in modern medicine
Medical bills are often littered with bizarre line items. If you’re in Russia, those little charges might include half a dozen slimy, slithering leeches.
About 10 million of the blood-sucking invertebrates are prescribed in Russia every year, offering many people an affordable alternative for blood-thinning medicines, the New York Times reported this weekend.
As Russia’s economy tanks — due to a mix of low oil prices, sanctions, and military spending — the country’s state-run medical system has also suffered. Medicinal leeches cost less than one U.S. dollar per icky blob, and doctors say leeches’ venom is a low-cost preventative treatment for stroke and heart disease.
“When you do it the first time, you think, ‘My God, leeches!'” Elena Kalinicheva, a patient at a walk-in medical center in Moscow, told NYT. She was there for her weekly leech treatment, which she seeks to treat her lower back pain.
“But after you go through it, you understand there is nothing to worry about,” she told the newspaper.
A typical treatment in Russia involves applying three to seven of the ravenous worms, which ooze their blood-thinning venom during 30- to 40-minute sessions. Once leeches are peeled away, the resulting wounds leak blood for another six hours, until the anticoagulant chemicals wear off.
Leech therapy was standard medical practice until the mid-1800s, and historical records show the treatment was common in Ancient Egyptian, Indian, Greek, and Arab cultures. But leeches fell out of favor with many doctors as claims about their healing effects proved to be hollow. Plus applying leeches is gross and uncomfortable.
But a slew of scientific studies in recent years have shown that leeches do offer medical benefits in limited applications. For people who can’t afford or access expensive prescription drugs, they remain a practical solution, even if some its power lies in the placebo effect.
Russia isn’t the only place experiencing something of a leech revival. The blood-suckers are creeping back into clinics and hospitals around the world, including in the U.S.
About 6,000 leeches are used each year in the U.S., according to BioTherapeutics Education and Research Foundation, though not for treating heart-related issues as in Russia.
Instead, leeches are used to help heal skin grafts, by draining pooled blood from under the graft and restoring blood circulation in blocked veins. They also remove excess blood from severed body parts that have been reattached.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved leeches for such uses in 2004, when it gave French company Ricarimpex SAS clearance to market the aquatic animals as medical devices.
In Europe, meanwhile, patients can get the therapeutic benefits of leeches without slapping any of the slimy creatures on their arms, heads, and legs. Large pharmaceutical companies now market medicines based on the blood-thinning chemicals in leech venom.
Medical experts in Malaysia have said that it’s of “paramount importance” to use leech therapy more frequently in plastic and reconstructive surgery, given how easy leeches are to apply and the reduced side-effects, compared to more invasive methods.
Leeches naturally thrive in a variety of environments, including rivers, ponds, estuaries, and saltwater, which is great for leeches — less so for unsuspecting swimmers. But many of Russia’s medical leeches are raised in farms by experts in white lab coats.
Self-prescribers can also buy them at farms’ stores. Nadezhda Loba, who took home 100 leeches in a plastic jug, told the NYT she applies the worms on her temples to treat conjunctivitis.