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Would you let leeches suck blood for beauty?

Electric New Paper
By Maureen Koh
February 12, 2007

THIS is not a scene from Fear Factor.
It is the face of faith and expectation.

The expectation that slimy leeches sucking your face will rid you of pimples.

For some, a blemished face causes more dread than creepy crawlies feeding from their skin - and they are willing to seek this peculiar form of beauty treatment.

Just ask the customers of an alternative therapy centre in Kuala Lumpur.

At the busy shopping district of Bukit Bintang, it's not unusual to find a queue of customers waiting outside a two-storey shophouse.

Inside is the Aishilai Foot Reflexology centre.

Go up the second floor and you will see rows of plastic bottles placed on tables at a corner.

Crawling in the bottles are hundreds of black slugs, each measuring about 8cm.

In the room are customers lying on reclining chairs, with fat slugs clinging to their faces.

Whose curious idea is this? Not an elderly sinseh's, no.

But a 21-year-old man's.

Mr Ee Wenbing, who owns the centre, claimed he learnt to administer such treatments from his father before taking over the business. There is no reason to be afraid of leeches just because they look horrible, he said, adding that these are commonly known as freshwater leeches.

In a telephone interview with The New Paper on Sunday, Mr Ee said: 'The practice of using leeches to treat certain conditions dates back hundreds of years in China.

'And this trend of bloodletting appears to be catching on again with some people in Malaysia.'

Mr Ee, who charges a flat rate of RM120 ($52) for a session, said most of his customers approach him because they want a 'beauty treatment'. They are usually recommended by others who have done it.

He did not want to reveal if this form of therapy formed the bulk of his earnings.

While most of his clients are women, he said he has also seen men seeking the treatment.

One of his customers is a 25-year-old Malaysian, who wanted to be known only as Ms Cass.

She told The New Paper on Sunday that a man friend told her about the centre and she decided to try this unorthodox therapy because she has acne problems.

She said: 'My friend had pimples on his face and after a few visits, his skin condition improved considerably.'

Just like other first-time customers, she found the initial treatment harrowing.


'I was scared when I first saw the slimy creatures. There was an icy cold and sticky feeling when the leeches were placed on my face.

'After that, I felt as if tiny needles were poking into my skin.'

She confessed that while she had reservations over this treatment initially, she was 'willing to suffer' just so she could treat her acne problem.

While some doctors are doubtful if such a treatment could reduce pimples or acne (see other report), Mr Ee said his customers are willing to give it a try because the treatment is inexpensive.

He said these freshwater leeches are used to stimulate blood flow.

'It'd attach itself to the skin and bite it. And with each bite, it would draw blood. It has been documented that leeches restored the flow of blood in healthy as well as damaged organs while they fed.'

This is because the saliva of leeches reportedly contains hirudin, a natural blood thinner. 'They don't just drink the blood, they filter it,' Mr Ee explained.


Aside from its use as a facial treatment, Mr Ee claimed that bloodletting is also effective in treating simple illnesses such as sinusitis, migraines and flu.

'The thing is, most people feel considerably better after each treatment.'

But the process is not as simple as merely placing the leeches on the affected or wounded spots.

Mr Ee pointed out: 'It's important to detect where the acupuncture points are.'

Patients will feel some itchiness at first when the leeches begin feeding, and as they suck, the sensation may feel like ant bites.

After about two hours, the leeches become bloated with blood. They can then be removed easily.

Mr Ee said: 'There will be blood trails oozing from the bites. This is normal and can continue for about six hours or up to about two days. It's just 'toxic' blood. The 'wounds' will heal on their own without leaving any scars.'

He said he has a team of 'leech catchers' who also see to it that they release the fed leeches 'back to nature', to the fields or streams in Penang and Kedah. They are left there for about six months before they are dug up and used to treat patients. Freshwater leeches can go without food for up to a year, Mr Ee said.

Freshwater leeches detect their 'prey' by vibrations in water. An excellent swimmer, the leech usually hides under rocks or leaves on the river bed.

'Once they detect a 'prey', the leeches attach themselves to the 'host' or, in this case, the feet of our catchers,' he said.

After their 'capture', the leeches are placed in bottles filled with
clean water.

Mr Ee claimed that there is no risk of infection from these bloodsuckers. 'The parasites in their digestive tract cannot survive in humans,' he added.

'I tell my customers that the most important thing is not to scratch the wounds. Otherwise, bacteria may get in.'

Another customer, Mr Huang Zhangzheng, said he had been convinced after just one treatment.

He told The New Paper on Sunday: 'I had wanted to try a foot massage on my first trip to the centre, but because I had read about bloodletting, I thought there was no harm trying it.'

Mr Huang, a Malaysian, said he has a back problem and has always suffered aches and pain at the waist and lower back.

'Now, with regular sessions, my backache has virtually disappeared.'

Makeup artist Jowie, who did not want to give her full name or age, was quoted in Feminine magazine as saying: 'To improve the condition of my skin, I just had to try it. Now, even my friends have commented that my face looks rosier.'

Mr Ee remarked: 'While women are generally the ones who have mixed feelings about the treatment at first, their love for beauty will normally overcome their fear.'

Leeches used for over 2,000 years

BLOODSUCKING leeches are used to treat certain medical conditions in some parts of the world.

In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US approved the marketing of leeches for medicinal purposes - to heal skin grafts or restore blood circulation.

A year later, the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City became one of the first US hospitals to offer leech therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee.

Leeches are also used in Europe, where the tradition dates back to 5 BC in Greece.

The International Leech Centre, a laboratory in Moscow, raises leeches to treat various conditions, including blood disorders and immunity problems.

In India, bloodletting is an outgrowth of ayurvedic medicine, a holistic approach to health which also includes diet, herbal remedies and relaxation techniques.


Studies showed that a leech has sharp teeth, which it uses to cut into the skin of its 'host'. It then releases a special chemical which serves two purposes.

It works as an anaesthesia, numbing the area where the leech is feeding so the host doesn't feel it, and it is also an anti-coagulant - it helps the blood to flow freely.

Hirudin, the natural blood thinner found in the saliva of leeches, dilutes all organic obstacles such as cysts and clots that surround and protect malignant growths from the immune system's agents.

In 20 minutes to an hour, a leech can go through several litres of blood, filtering and thinning it before it is returned to the vein.

But using leeches to treat beauty problems such as pimples or acne is another matter entirely.

Dr Henry Loh, a consultant dermatologist at Dermatology Associates, has his reservations.

He said: 'It is important to remember that the cause of acne is not due to the toxins in a person's body but its genetic predisposition. This includes taking into consideration if the patient's parents have similar acne problems, and other factors such as lifestyle habits.'