Scout leech link

Geoff Read at
Sat Sep 20 01:08:47 EST 2003

The Scout Report ran a leech link this week in connection with human 
ectoparasites as a topic, but this undated BBC story is actually from 1998, 
deriving from a medical student's journal article which I tracked to:

Here's the Beeb's version.
Bloodsuckers hit the medical comeback trail


Leeches - the fleshy bloodsucking worms associated with the historic world of 
medicine - are making a comeback - even if the yuk factor means they often 
have to be hidden from public gaze.  

A leech farm in Wales sells 15,000 leeches a year to the NHS, according to 
London medical student Robert Weinkove, who has written a history of the worm 
for the Student British Medical Journal.  

Biopharm, a leech farm in Swansea, exports another 15,000 a year around the 

Leeches were widely used up until this century for many medical conditions, 
including tonsillitis and piles.  

"They went too far, overusing them and using them in the wrong way with little 
benefit, " said Mr Weinkove, a fifth-year medical student at the United 
Medical and Dental Schools of Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals in London.  

A few doctors were still using leeches in the 1930s and 40s, mainly on stroke 
patients, but their use died out until the 1960s when interest in the creature 
was reignited.  

But it is only in the last 10 to 15 years that they have really caught on and 
their use has taken off in the last five years.  

Image problem

Mr Weinkove believes it has taken so long for them to come back because they 
have an image problem.  

"Doctors have been reluctant to use them because of their image, but now it 
has been proven that they can be useful in certain cases," he said.  

Leeches are particularly useful in plastic surgery, such as breast 
reconstruction and where a part of the body has become severed and had to be 
sewn back on.  

Sometimes, the patient's veins are too weak to take the blood away from the 
body part and the blood builds up, causing "venous congestion".  

Attaching leeches to the body can draw the blood away gradually and painlessly 
since leech saliva contains an anaesthetic.  

This allows the re-attached body part to survive until the veins are strong 
enough to work normally. One man who cut off his [use your imagination] had to 
have leeches attached to drain the blood.  


The leeches suck the blood until they become totally engorged. They can take 
in up to 10 times their bodyweight in blood. When they are full they fall off 
and can be replaced with another leech.  

A patient may need up to 30 leeches to drain blood away.

Mr Weinkove says most patients are willing to have leeches on their bodies if 
it is a choice between leeches, more operations or losing a part of the body.  

He says children often give them names. But their family and friends are not 
so keen to see the creatures at work.  

This has led some doctors to hide the leeches, using dressings. Another 
consideration is to ensure the leech feeds on the right part of the body.  

'Dinner plate'

Doctors in Philidelphia have developed a plastic shield to hide the leech and
keep it in place.

It involves a dinner plate-like object with a hole in it. This is used on 
severed fingers. The patient's arm is covered in plaster of paris to keep it 
raised in the air so the blood can be drained.  

The dinner plate is put on top and the leech is attached and covered in 
fabric. One of the doctors involved is called Dr Callegari, conjuring up 
images of the famous German film.  

Most hospitals in the UK which use leeches do not keep them on site when there 
is no specific need for them.  

There are a handful of pharmacies up and down the country which have storage 
room for them. They can send leeches over to hospitals on request.  

Leech saliva also has medicinal uses of its own. It prevents clotting and is 
being used in several new drugs, for example, to treat patients who have had a 
stroke, often due to blood clots in the brain.  

A new one, hirudin, is being used in the US and may have less side effects 
than other anti-clotting drugs.  

  Geoff Read < at>

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