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Bloodsucking leeches regain popularity

Leeches, those small, slithery black worms that cling to your feet and legs and suck your blood if you venture into their territory, are making a medical comeback. They're being widely used to prevent veins from clotting after skin grafts, reconstructive surgery or amputation.

"Medical leeches have been used for more than 3,000 years," Olga Doty wrote in a 1999 issue of The Russia Journal, "from the days of the pharaohs to the 18th and 19th centuries, when women of fashion put leeches behind their ears before a ball to attain rosy cheeks and shining eyes - and reportedly to help them to dance tirelessly through the night."

Leeches' ability to relieve pain and swelling had been observed and recorded by healers at least as far back as ancient Egypt, Nicola Clark wrote in The International Herald-Tribune in October 2004. "But the creatures fell into medical disrepute around the mid-19th century, when they began to be prescribed for anything from fractures to kidney disease, tuberculosis and even 'hysteria' - sometimes with detrimental effects for the patient."

Three months ago, the US Food and Drug Administration approved an application from a French company, Ricarimpex SAS, to market leeches for medicinal purposes.

Ricarimpex has been breeding leeches for more than 150 years. It sells about 100,000 of the tiny worms each year, mostly to hospitals in North America and Europe, many for use after microsurgery. Owner Brigitte Latrille (an Olympic fencing medallist in 1976, 1980 and 1984) told Clark: "Suddenly, thanks to the FDA, there is a great deal of talk about leeches. We are getting calls from all over, and not just the United States."

Other leech-breeding farms operate in Wales, Germany, eastern Europe, Russia and Australia.

Australian leeches vary in size from about 7 mm [quarter-inch] long to as much as 200 mm [8 in.] when extended. (The type used for medical purposes are much smaller.)

Dr. Fredric R. Govedich of Monash University's School of Biological Sciences in Melbourne loves the little black critters. "Leeches are a fascinating but misunderstood group of annelid worms," he says on his comprehensive website, All About Leeches. "In addition to their medical uses, leeches are quite fascinating in their own right."

Here's how he describes them:

Most people know them for their antisocial behaviours but do not realize that ... many leech species are very good parents, caring for their young in a manner that resembles the care shown by birds or even mammals.

They can care for their young in a variety of ways, including building nests for them, carrying broods of eggs or young attached to their ventral surface, or even, in several species, carrying the eggs and young in an internal pouch (like a marsupial).

In quite a few cases, the parent leech also feeds its young, either directly providing nutrients across the body wall or, more frequently, by capturing and killing prey for the youngsters to feed on until they are big enough to provide for themselves.

The leeches with parental care are not always bloodsuckers. In fact only a few species in the glossiphoniid family (the family with parental care) are able to feed on humans. Most are predators and feed on other invertebrates such as snails or insect larvae.

The way those leeches care for their young reminds us of sea horses, the subject of an earlier story.

FOOTNOTE. Leeches are also great bait for catching fish. Here's part of a report of a major fishing contest in North Dakota (US) last May, posted by WalleyeCentral.com:

SPIRIT LAKE, N.D. ­ Nick Johnson of Elmwood, Wis., and co-angler John Blanchard of Crystal, Minn., landed a five-walleye limit weighing 28 pounds, 6 ounces Wednesday to lead the four-day, $401,750 Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour stop on Devils Lake... ³We had one fish that probably weighed 8 pounds and another that probably weighed 7 pounds,² said Blanchard... "There were four or five boats around us casting crankbaits at pretty much every stop, too, but the leeches seemed to produce better.
Fishermen will be pleased to learn (from Dr. Govedich) that erpobdellids (the kind of leeches often used for bait) are all predators, and do not have the ability to suck blood.

 

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Story first posted January 2005

Copyright © 2005

Eric Shackle

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