Leeching onto Success

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If Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s warning last week that Russia’s recent economic bump will most likely be short lived got you down, don’t fret there are some economic spheres besides McDonald’s that are going strong.  As Time reports, leech farming  is a “flourishing industry” and  “a bright spot in a Russian economy.”  That’s right, leeches.  Not the oligarch kind that sucks wealth like a like a crack addict hits the pipe.  The slimy, waterborne, blood sucking kind, or as known by its Latin moniker, Hirudo medicinalis.

Russia is leech producing central, churning out 10 times more blood suckers that any other country.  The base of operations is the International Medical Leech Center at Udelnaya, southeast of Moscow. The Institute has a long history.  Beginning in 1937, Udelnaya was the center of Soviet leech production.  It’s unknown what their production quota was in Stalin’s Third Five Year Plan (1938-1941), but the Center produced about 3 million leeches a year. The number is evidence of how widespread leeches were used in Soviet medicine. Every Soviet pharmacy was required to carry a stock of at least 25.

The use of leeches continues to be a sound medical practice.  According to Time,

[The Center] is now taking advantage of the growing popularity of leech therapy, also known as Hirudotherapy, around the world. Demi Moore last year spoke about the cleansing effects of leeches; Britain’s National Health Service buys 50,000 bloodsuckers every year; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved leech therapy in 2004 because they proved beneficial in increasing blood circulation for patients who have had skin grafts.

Today the center sells the leeches to plastic surgeons, who put them on wounds to reduce the chance of scarring, to dentists, who apply them on gums to reduce swelling, and even to gynecologists, who use them to treat sexually transmitted diseases (Yes. You imagine right.). The oral cavity of the leech is rich with an anticoagulant, which allows the animal to feed continuously on blood but which also delivers the anti-clotting substance more effectively to the area of a wound than would a small injection puncture. Indeed, leeches are used very much like syringes. After a leech is used on a patient it has to be killed. “It’s like a disposable syringe, it isn’t good sanitary practice to use it twice,” says Gennady Nikonov the director of the Leech Center.

Perhaps strangest of all are the emotional relationships technicians at the Leech Center have formed with their leeches. Their jars require constant cleaning because, as Elena Titova, a 25 year veteran at the Center, explains, “Leeches urinate non-stop for three days after they are fed. You have to clean their jars very frequently during this time; otherwise they poison themselves with their own waste.”  The staff feeds its stock “certified cattle blood” except on holidays when they treat the leeches to veal blood “as a treat.”  According to Nikonov, raising leeches has a gender component.  Women are more nurturing than men, and since each employee is responsible for their own crop, some organize their vacations around feeding so no one fiddles with their leeches.  “Leeches are very attached to their owners,” Titova believes.

Besides their use in surgeries and other procedures, leeches are also the central ingredient of Nikonov’s skin care line, Bio Energy:

Some of the leeches go into Nikonov’s own skin care range “Bio Energy,” which is made at the Center. The most expensive product, an anti-aging cream, contains dried, freshly-hatched larvae and retails for 47,000 rubles ($1,300) for 15 grams. The idea for the cosmetic range came after the collapse of Communism, when pharmacies were no longer required to sell leeches. “We had no money and the staff would go several months without wages,” says Nikonov. “We had too many leeches and we wanted to try and create something exciting and profitable.” Nikonov explains that the deconstructed leeches become ingredients in a cream, helping it the skin’s surface to improve circulation of oxygen, fats and protein. All this, he claims, leads to younger looking skin.

The biggest export market for the Center’s leeches is France. Nikonov, however, says that he remains very selective about his clientele. “We are careful about who we export them to,” he says. “I know in certain cuisines people put the leech on a goose. They wait until it gets fat on the goose blood and then fry the leech like it’s a sausage. This is considered a delicacy. I feel sorry for the leech. They should not be used this way.”

Okay . . . I guess it works if you work it.