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Health, Beauty & Fashion

So, are you a sucker for leech therapy?

HSA advises caution, but some customers say it works for them
The Straits Times - July 15, 2011
By: Teh Joo Lin
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So, are you a sucker for leech therapy? Madam Fatimah undergoing leech therapy for her swollen foot at her flat in Sembawang recently. 'Before this, my foot was like an elephant's,' she said. -- ST PHOTO: TEH JOO LIN

FOR people who go jungle trekking, leech attacks are a nuisance they have to put up with.

But there are some people who are happy to have several of these bloodsucking, worm-like critters attached to them to 'draw out bad blood', 'boost circulation' or relieve a gout attack.

It does not bother them that the clinical use of this 'therapy' is not scientifically well-established.

Citing the lack of objective evidence to support its safety and effectiveness, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) advises consumers to exercise caution when considering leech therapy.

At least two companies in Singapore are offering the treatment.

Leech Station, which is scouting for a new shopfront, seems to be doing well enough. Its spokesman said its employees do three to four house visits a week now, up from just one a week when it opened in 2009.

It started bringing in leeches, bred on a farm in Malaysia, when it emerged that Singaporeans were crossing the Causeway for the 'therapy'.

Its spokesman said: 'Sometimes we are called in to 'leech parties' for groups of friends. The maximum number we did was eight people at a time.'

Ms Nooraini Ghaus of Nooraini's Leech Therapy House started her business this year, and gets seven to eight customers a week. She operates out of her Bedok flat, does house calls, and is looking to open a shop.

Each session with five leeches costs $35 at Nooraini's and $40 at Leech Station, which imposes an additional one-time service charge of $20.

The duration of a session depends on how long the creatures take to fill up and drop from their host's skin - usually about an hour or two.

The leech has real bite, swear practitioners, who point to its use in age-old medical practice dating back thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, leeches were used as a panacea for ailments ranging from fever to headaches, and as an alternative to amputating a limb.

But as medical science advanced in the early 20th century, they retreated into obscurity.

They have since slithered back into use in the region in recent years: In Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance, healers practising alternative medicine have been drawing the hopeful, who show up with all sorts of ailments.

Farther afield, Hollywood star Demi Moore, 48, lent star power to the therapy by claiming that such therapy in Austria helped her to look young.

The spokesman for Leech Station claims that leeches can 'improve blood circulation', 'get rid of poisons in the blood' and 'rejuvenate the respiratory and excretory systems'; they are also supposed to relieve stress, improve alertness and banish pain.

But therapists stop short of claiming that leeches can treat diseases. The HSA has advised them against doing so. An HSA spokesman said those considering going for this therapy should seek proper advice from registered medical practitioners, especially if they have pre-existing conditions.

Dr Winston Chew, who heads the hand and microsurgery section at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, said leeches can be used during microsurgery to relieve blood congestion in the veins.

'There are no other recommended indications, as far as I know,' he said.

Leech therapy has been associated with the risk of bacterial infection, but companies here say they get around it by using farmed leeches, which are killed after each use.

For Madam Fatimah Ali, 53, relief from the pain in her foot keeps her going back. She said her foot had swelled and hurt so badly that she could not walk a few months ago, but doctors found nothing wrong with her.

She went to a Chinese sinseh, who drained 'bad blood' from her foot with a syringe 'the size of a pen', but it hurt so much she turned to leeches.

Four sessions and 25 leeches later, she claims to feel 70 per cent better.

She said: 'Before this, my foot was like an elephant's. The leech bite is not painful. It feels like an ant bite.'

Still, not everyone has faith in something that looks like a slug. Retiree May Liaw, 56, is put off by the prospect of feeding leeches. She said: 'I am already scared of bugs and worms. I would rather stick to Western medicine.'

joolin@sph.com.sg

 

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