Columns

2017.05.17 Leeches could help cut your health care bill

By RICH FOLEY

First, let me say thank you for not turning the page after reading the headline on this column. When I saw the word “leech” in a New York Times online headline recently, I almost did that very thing. Instead, I went ahead and read what turned out to be a fascinating article and now, you get to read this column. Sorry about that.

It seems that millions of Russians are prescribed leeches—about 10 million per year-as a low cost option for various maladies. For example, leeches are often the treatment of choice for those needing to take blood thinners. As one of many in the United States who has been prescribed said thinners, that got my attention.

The procedure in Russia usually involves three to seven of the bloodsucking worms, which are allowed 30 to 40 minutes to do their thing, injecting a natural anticoagulant contained in their venom with each bite. After the little creatures have finished their work, wounds caused by leech bites will continue to ooze blood for roughly six hours, give or take a bit, until your “treatment” wears off.

Sounds fun, right? Remember those television ads with NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, NBA star Chris Bosh, comedian Kevin Nealon and golfing legend Arnold Palmer, users of a name-brand prescription blood thinner? They sure looked like they were having fun on the golf course after taking their pill instead of getting a leech treatment somewhere.

Celebrities like those four, though, probably have insurance or the ability to pay the rather large cost of blood thinners in pill form. According to the Times article, Russians often turn to leeches as state-run pharmacies that theoretically would supply needed pills for free are often out of stock. Rather than paying full price at drugstores for the pills, leeches start to look like a better option.

In Russia, medicinal leeches sell for about 90 cents each. In clinics, they are used only once. Thrifty Russians, though, often save them for reuse again and again. One woman interviewed in the Times article said if you keep the leeches and change their water frequently, they will live a long time, adding “Think about it: Leeches don’t run out.”

In the United States, leeches are a bit more pricey, going for $15.50 each at a medicinal leech business in New York state called Leeches USA. That’s such a catchy name that they should consider coming up with their own advertising jingle.

Can’t you just hear The Beach Boys, or the group calling themselves The Beach Boys these days, singing a little tune called “Leeches USA?” They could even recycle the music from their old hit “Surfin’ USA.” But, I digress.

You may be asking yourself about the legality of selling leeches for medicinal purposes in this country. Actually, back in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of leeches as medical devices, along with the sale of maggots. Maggots? Don’t worry, there are some things even I won’t write about. You’re welcome.

But, back to leeches. Blood thinning is far from the only medicinal use for the hungry worms. Ailments such as back pain, enlarged prostate, and hypertension are but a few of those treated with leech therapy. I have hypertension myself, but luckily, my medication for that is pretty reasonably priced, so much so that I wouldn’t even consider replacing my pills with leeches.

I may be starting to sound like a hypochondriac, but I have a third medical issue listed in the article, namely glaucoma. I can’t think of any possible way leeches could help with that. Would I have to let them bite my eyes? I guarantee that will not be happening. But, maybe there is another option.

 You didn’t think that the mainstream pharmaceutical industry would let an alternate treatment gain traction without trying to get a piece of the action, did you? Of course not. In Europe, several giants of the industry, including AstraZenaca, have introduced medications including leech venom, offering the benefits of the venom without having those icky leeches crawling all over you.

I doubt President Trump will add leeches to his health care proposals, but you never know. Since the Russians seem to be the leaders in this part of the medical universe, maybe they can suggest the proper leech treatment for his hair issues. That might be fun to watch.