Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Animals as diagnosticians and treatment aids

Ants' interest in urine can be used to see whether the urine contains sugar, a marker of diabetes. (If the physician prefers, he can taste it himself.) The use of ants for urinalysis comes up in tropical medicine and historical references, but there appear to be zero articles in PubMed about it. So I remain in the dark as to which species of ant should be used, how long they should be given to show an interest in the urine, or whether more ants mean more sugar is present. Ants have also been studied in arthritis, though it's not clear from the abstracts I can find whether the ants are eaten, encouraged to sting the sufferer, or what. (Interestingly, a friend who has studied traditional medicine in Morocco tells me that bee stings are used to treat arthritic joints. Perhaps Order Hymenoptera contains an antiinflammatory agent.)

Maggots can clean the dead tissue from wounds. So-called larval therapy is used in the U.K. Here's a free fulltext review. (Dermestid beetles can clean carcasses for museum display, too. The idea is that many tiny sets of jaws can scrape off flesh better than human hands can.)

Leeches secrete a blood thinner that can keep wounds from becoming engorged, which is useful when attaching severed body parts and in other such plastic surgery needs. There are a number of articles about this in PubMed, many of which are free. These creatures have been used to treat priapism as well, though this is poorly documented in the medical literature (there's a 1960 Russian-language article about the topic, but no reviews more recent than that to my knowledge).

Also of interest:

* Zootherapeutics (the use of animals in medical treatments) in Brazil and India.
* An insect formulary of sorts, drawing upon Indian folk remedies. I don't know whether studies have been done, and if so how rigorous they've been, but as long as information about such things continues to be published in periodicals like International Chickpea and Pigeonpea Newsletter, low-resource practitioners are not going to have access to it.
* Some articles from Chinese journals are cited here regarding ants and their uses in China. Again, these are buried in journals that aren't easy to find online.

Many of these remedies remain completely unstudied by science. There are probably a lot of safe and effective medicinal uses of insects, but until they're subjected to scientific scrutiny we may never take full advantage of them in either low- or high-resource medicine.

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