Georgia: Betting on Bloodsuckers for Better Health
Troubled by varicose veins, cellulite, high blood pressure or angina? You may cringe at the thought of it, but the bite of a little blood-sucking creature with 100 razor-sharp teeth may be the answer to your medical worries.
As in the West, leech therapy in Georgia exists on the periphery of mainstream medicine, but strong local enthusiasm for this age-old treatment means that the country’s leeches are kept busily biting.
“They are little computers,” enthused Tbilisi leech therapist Rusudan Mermanishvili, director of the medical day spa Aura Plus. “They are so smart, so cute.”
The secret to the parasite’s powers lies in a substance within its saliva called hirudin, an anticoagulant that improves circulation. Some Georgian leech therapists maintain that a leech can “diagnose” the problem a patient’s blood contains once it gets a taste of the blood, and adjust its saliva discharge accordingly.
The hirudin, they claim, can provide relief for complaints ranging from sprained ankles to high cholesterol and, yes, even infertility and hemorrhoids.
But don’t turn up your nose in disgust just yet. Already in medical service for thousands of years, leeches have been making a medical comeback in the US and Europe for skin grafts and restoring circulation during reconstructive surgery. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration approved French company Ricarimpex’s sale of medical leeches in 2004.
Their application, however, appears much broader in Georgia (and in other former Soviet republics), where the dividing line between folk and modern medicine has long been blurry.
University student Salome Afshilava resorted to leeches on her cheek to cure a case of periodontitis. “I had problems with my gums; they were swollen and it hurt,” Afshilava recounted. “It gave me the creeps at first, but after a few hirudotherapy sessions, and other types of treatment, the problem was gone.”
Aside from doubling as dentists, leeches, it appears, also make for skilled cosmetologists. Cosmetologist Mermanishvili says she routinely uses hirudotherapy to reduce and prevent cellulite, remove spider veins and dissolve scar tissue. A cell-multiplier found in leech saliva called hyaluronan, a frequent ingredient in skin-care products, does the trick, she says.
More serious potential applications also exist. Leech therapist Nana Kiladze, a general practitioner at Tbilisi Polyclinic #2, maintains that leeches can address cravings associated with drug addiction withdrawal. She has not, however, used them for that purpose.
“The discharge from the salivary gland of a leech also contains serotonin, a happiness hormone,” which helps end the cravings, said Kiladze, repeating a claim also made by some Russian researchers.
Leech treatment, though, easily conjures up scenes from a B-rated horror film. Therapists keep their parasitic assistants in water-filled glass containers, where they franticly snake around. When placed on human skin, the greenish brown creatures, thirsty for blood and still twisting, promptly put their three jaws to work.
No exact figures exist for the number of leech therapists in Georgia. In Tbilisi, leech therapists can have their own facilities, be found in day spas or in regular medical clinics.
An average session lasts for 45 minutes. Kiladze adheres to the recommended onetime use for leeches, while cosmetologist Mermanishvili says she will use a leech twice on the same person.
No exact course of instruction exists for leech therapy, although the topic is covered in some medical school courses. To use leeches effectively, “therapists must know well both modern pharmacology and acupuncture” to know the location of points associated with particular body processes, commented Kiladze, during an interview in her office.
Gasps and sighs are heard from behind a curtain, where a middle-aged woman is being leeched. Kiladze pops behind the curtain to take a look. “This one sucks really well,” she said of the leech.
After a leech is removed, blood will ooze from the wound for hours. If nagging itchiness persists, some therapists suggest using antihistamines.
Local disposal of used leeches, though, does not always appear to follow standard practices for disposal of infectious waste -- in one case, just a plastic bag of bandages and leeches tossed into a street trashcan.
Rural areas have been associated with more of a do-it-yourself approach to leech therapy. “Whenever she had high blood pressure, my grandmother, who lived in a village, would catch a leech in a pond and attach it to her neck,” recalled Tbilisi office manager Natia Akhvlediani.
Today, Georgia’s leeches mostly come from bio-farms, not ponds. Georgian-bred, over-the-counter leeches cost 80 tetri (about 60 cents) per pop in the few Tbilisi drugstores that sell them. Kiladze pays $2 per leech for her supply of sterile medical leeches from farms in neighboring Azerbaijan.
But Georgia’s faith in leeches is not limited to Georgians alone. British management consultant Harry Jones recounts having two of the parasites applied to his toes and four to his ankle to treat a badly sprained ankle. The cure was “near immediate and permanent,” Jones said. He “managed several Scottish dances” at a reception two days later.
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