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Are leeches being used in modern medicine?


Medicinal Leeches: Icky Business

The use of medicinal leeches -- hirudo medicinalis, as they're known among physicians -- has created a niche industry for producers and distributors of the slippery subjects. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved French firm Ricarimpex SAS to market leeches as medical devices. The company joined a handful of others that have been providing medicinal leeches in the states since at least 1975. Leeches U.S.A., for example, sells medicinal leeches across the country for between $9 and $12 apiece. The worms are typically stored on site in a hospital refrigerator [sources: MSNBC, Leeches U.S.A.].

For patients who are less than keen about the idea of a slimy sucker crawling on their skin there are a couple of ways in which doctors cut down on the ick factor. As the nerves around the area treated in graft or reattachment surgery are typically numbed and leeches naturally produce an anesthetic, the patient is unlikely to actually feel the creature crawling on his or her skin. In addition, medicinal leeches can be applied to the treated area using a plastic syringe, which also cuts down on skin contact. Finally, doctors usually place a gauze barrier around the treatment area to prevent the leech from wandering to other parts of the body [source: BERF].

Specific steps are also taken to ensure medicinal leech treatment is done hygienically. Before setting the gauze barrier, a medical professional thoroughly cleans the patient's skin with soap and water and then rinses it with distilled, non-chlorinated water. During treatment, doctors will check regularly for infection and monitor the patient's hemoglobin (the red blood cell molecule that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs) levels to ensure that the blood loss does not harm the patient [source: Leeches U.S.A.].

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