April 2, 2008 at 7:04 PM ET
By Dr. Billy Goldberg and Mark Leyner
Dr. Billy Goldberg:
There is no better impetus for a Body Odd blog than Demi Moore making a public declaration that she uses leeches to keep herself looking fresh and feeling healthy. Now, I can’t agree with Demi’s personal use of leeches (although she does look pretty fantastic), but the truth is, these little creatures are medical marvels.
In a throwback to the days of the medieval barber, today’s doctors use leeches, as well as maggots, with great success. Surgeons, for instance, use these creepy crawlers to remove blood from the site of skin grafts or reattached parts and to relieve congestion in the blood vessels.
The leeches used for medical purposes are a European variety called Hirudo Medicinalis and are raised on special leech farms. The Hirudo leech works some additional magic by secreting a chemical in its saliva that acts as an anti-coagulant to prevent blood clotting.
Oh, by the way, the bite of a leech is painless due to its own anesthetic.
If you want to read other intriguing details about medical leeches, check out John Colapinto’s 2005 New Yorker article, “Bloodsuckers.” You can learn that “Leeches are found in virtually every kind of habitat — including a species in the Sahara that resides in the noses of camels. There’s another that resides in the anuses of hippopotamuses, a cave-dwelling leech in New Guinea that sucks on the blood of bats; and one that attacks the armpits of turtles.”
Leeches aren’t the only bugs on the medical scene. In the ER, it’s not uncommon for a homeless patient to come in with a leg infection covered in maggots. After we brush away the “bugs” (maggots are actually flies at a larval stage), the wounds are surprisingly clean.
Maggots eat away the dead tissue and leave the healthy stuff behind. Not a very appetizing solution, but it works. Doctors have used these little creatures as a therapy for cleaning stubborn wounds. Sterile maggots of the green bottle fly, Lucilia sericata, are used for a procedure called “maggot debridement therapy.” The maggots (about five to 10) are placed on each square centimeter of a wound. The wound is then covered with a breathable protective dressing and the maggots are left for about two to three days to chow down on the infected tissue. It is believed that they also secrete substances that kill bacteria and promote wound healing.
Leyner — Surprise! Surprise! — has enormous affection for insects. One might even say a "morbid fascination."
I’m elated at the resurgent use of bugs such as maggots and leeches in medicine. But I take exception to the doctor’s characterization of my fascination as “morbid.” Yes, I have enormous affection for insects. I identify very strongly with insects. But I wouldn’t call any of this morbid. It's just that I'd much rather study the pulsed emission of scalding chemicals from a bombardier beetle than sit and watch the NCAA Final Four.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that maintains a distinctly anti-insect bias. This is a prejudice that I’ve fought against all my life.
Once, in the third grade, the teacher asked us what we thought were the worst problems in the country. There were shouts from every corner of the room: “Corporate greed! Racism! Anti-Semitism! Pollution!” I was called last. “Entomophobia – fear of insects,” I said meekly, my voice barely audible amid the jeers of my classmates.
I’m not naïve about bugs, or even touchy-feely … but I’m always respectful. Here’s my big problem with this culture. We care so much about downer cows and seal pups and rabbits used in cosmetic research, but few people realize how many bugs have sacrificed themselves for the good of mankind. In ancient India the mandibles of soldier ants were used as surgical clips in bowel surgery. They were the first sutures! Australian aborigines use the bush cockroach as a local anesthetic. Promising cancer drugs have been isolated from the wings of Asian sulphur butterflies and from the legs of Taiwanese stag beetles.
And what about food? I’m not talking about the 'Fear Factor' gross-out variety, but real top chef cuisine. People chow down on insects all over the world. In Australia, they eat witchetty grubs. In China, silkworm pupae and scorpions. In Indonesia, stink bugs and dragonflies. In Mexico, grasshoppers. In Cambodia, tarantulas. Termites in Uganda. Palm grubs in Peru. And mopane caterpillars in Botswana.
A medical warning here: Entomophagy can pose risks. People who are allergic to shrimp or shellfish shouldn’t eat insects.
All I’m saying is, let’s not be insect-haters. Do you know what flashes in an insect’s mind (yes, his MIND) the instant before he’s crushed by a rolled up copy of O magazine or smushed under the trampoline-heel of your Air Nike? Probably his Mom. Think about it.