Some Docs Latching Onto Leeches

Korean medics are using leeches and maggots to treat their patients.

ByABC News
March 3, 2008, 3:51 PM

March 4, 2008— -- SEOUL For seven years, Duck-Im Kim and her family tried everything they could to cure a rare skin disease called purpura a red or purple discoloration that some doctors believe is caused by bleeding underneath the skin.

"My legs started to swell one day," Kim, 48, recalls. "And then it got red, really red all over, and lasted for weeks, sometimes months."

Besides the pain, Kim says she was too embarrassed to go out in public. It eventually led her into serious depression.

There is no definitive cause or cure known in modern medicine for purpura. Combined with inflammation, the hemorrhagic area begins with red spots, becomes darker into purple, and later fades away to a brownish-yellow color.

But now Kim is looking to another, less conventional method that she hopes will help treat her condition.

"When I was just about to give up, I learned through the Internet that making leeches to suck my blood could help," says Kim, as she sits in a waiting room in Handongha Traditional Korean Medical Clinic, in Seoul. "Disgusting, yes, but being desperate I had no other options left."

Dr. Dong-Ha Han nicknamed "doctor leech" for his eight years of research on medical leeches says he can treat patients with vasculitis, skin ulcer, atopic dermatitis, rheumatic arthritis, migraine and gout. His toolbox includes leeches that are starved for six months.

"The theory is you make them bite and suck clotted blood vessels, allowing fresh blood to circulate," Han explains, while holding a plastic container filled with inch-long leeches. The secret, he says, is in an enzyme known as Hirudin, a very powerful anti-coagulant in leech saliva.

The leeches are taken out of the container into a glass tube with which they can be slid onto the area of infection. Kim is now undergoing her fifth session of the treatment, which costs $220 per visit.

She flinches for a moment as the leech bites in.

"It feels like a needle poking, but the pain soon goes away," she sighs in relief. That's because leeches secrete local anesthetic enzymes naturally to avoid detection by the host.