Blood-Sucking Bandages

Yuri Fedosov is in terrible pain. Doctors have removed the splinter from his iris, but the swelling hasn't subsided. Inside Moscow's Central Ophthalmology Hospital, nurse Lydia Karikh has the cure. Reaching with a pair of tongs into a glass jar, she removes two greenish-black leeches, puts them into a vial and presses it against Fedosov's right temple. Instantly the worms slither toward his skin, latch on and begin to suck greedily. "This is a bit weird," says Fedosov, as the leeches swell with blood.

Leeching may have disappeared in most parts of the world, but in Russia "hirudotherapy" is seeing a revival. Each week clinics like Karikh's order thousands of leeches from local farms. By applying them at pressure points, doctors say they can cure anything from glaucoma to infertility. Leech saliva increases blood flow and thus oxygen level in tissues. "Americans use synthetic hirudins, a major component of leech secretions, for thrombosis or tissue repair," says Dr. Albert Krashenyuk, president of St. Petersburg's Hirudology Association. "But the most effective--and cheapest--thing to do is to use a real leech."

Leeches are probably too temperamental to make a comeback in the West: they won't bite perfumed skin and "hate drafts and bright sunlight," says Karikh. At the International Medical Leech Center near Moscow, commercial director Vyacheslav Migal is pushing a line of skin gels made with leech secretions to fight wrinkles and cellulite; they have "the same effect as a live leech." And they're a lot less gross.