It may at first glance hardly seem compatible with modern medicine, but leeches have indeed re-established themselves as an inherent part of contemporary healthcare.
Since the time when humans first began to practice the art of healing, leeches (Hirudo medicinalis) have almost invariably played an important role. It is even assumed that animals as well benefit from the healing properties of leeches. The German word for leech, "Egel" is derived from the Greek word echis, meaning "small snake". It has even been suggested that the snake depicted on the Aesculapian staff is actually meant to be a leech. Be that as it may, the leech has been famous for its healing powers for a very long time. Among ancient Germanic peoples, for instance, the term "leech" was used almost synonymously for the word "healer". Dhanvantari, the Indian God of the Ayurveda, carries a leech in one of his four hands. In medieval England, healers were known as "leechers".
After a forced interruption of approximately 100 years, lasting until about 1975 (a result not only of the frequently excessive applications of the 19th century known then as vampirism, but also of the limited knowledge and the prejudices of that time), they have now managed to regain their "license to practise medicine" as healers and living pharmacies.
Reconstructive plastic surgery rediscovered the sensitive bloodsuckers during the 1980s when a young boy’s ear, which had been torn off, could only then be successfully engrafted when leeches were applied. Since then, leeches have experienced a renaissance in the medical arts of healing. Modern biochemistry has been able to discern so many active pharmaceutical substances and mechanisms in leech saliva that the earlier doubts concerning the healing efficacy of leeches have by and large disappeared and the bias against leech applications as being nothing but a medieval belief has itself been relegated to the realm of outdated superstition.
Experts have even compared the importance of Hirudin, together with the pharmaceutical agents in its saliva, to that of penicillin, having, of course, a completely different range of effects.
These bloodsucking animals have long had to live with prejudices. This is understandable if you are only superficially acquainted with them, although they hardly correspond to the negative image which up to now they have been given. Their reputation could hardly be worse. They are unfortunately not only famous for their healing qualities, but also stigmatized as infamous bloodsuckers. Nonetheless, if judged in human terms, leeches lead a very tolerable life.
- They are not subject to gluttony. One meal is enough to sustain them for 1 to 2 years. (Who amongst us can make that claim?)
- They reside in only the purest of water.
- They are beautiful to behold. The markings on their backs are exceptional, and their elegant swimming style is very similar to that of dolphins.
- Their bite does not really hurt very much. In fact, it usually causes only a slight irritation.
- They cleanse the star-shaped wounds they have caused.
- Their saliva glands are free of pathogens.
During their more than 450-million-year-old history (at that point their tracks trail off), prejudices have obviously never been able to stop them from constantly innovating and further developing the healing effects they have on those beings they have targeted: mammals – including ourselves!