Many a tourist takes to roaming in the lush grasslands of Munnar, a popular hill station in Western Ghats, Kerala. The evergreen meadows are a favourite for sightseeing and photography but they are also known to be the home of bloodsucking parasites known as leeches. Unlike other oligochaetes, leeches have two suckers at each end and when they come in contact with the skin they make a Y-shaped incision to draw blood. They can consume blood up to five times their body weight. Tea pluckers who are often exposed to this menace ward them off by applying a mixture of castor oil and snuff on their feet. The foul odour of this locally made remedy effectively knocks out leeches as well as humans. The unwary tourist usually lets off an alarmed scream and runs helter skelter when he or she notices these segmented worms clinging to their bodies.
Decades ago a similar incident occurred at my home. I was newly married and my better half used to tend our extensive flower garden while I was away at office. All of a sudden she noticed these slimy creatures climbing onto her hands. She screamed leech! leech! but the locals who spoke only Tamil couldn’t decipher what she was saying. Her Tamil was no good either. Finally she blurted out “pambu” which means snake in the local lingo. A group of men rushed to her aid with firewood sticks and other weapons to finish off the intruder only to burst out laughing when they discovered the cause of her distress call. This anecdote was repeatedly narrated by our neighbours to all their friends and relatives.
Medical science has historically made good use of these parasites to bleed patients and this method was practised till late 19th century. At present, leeches are used for treatment of Buerger’s disease, reattachment of damaged body parts and reconstruction in plastic surgery. The anticoagulant produced by leeches is also used to prevent clotting of blood. Ayurvedic medicine uses them for treating dermatological and blood vessel related diseases.
Trekking in the thick forests and swamps especially after it rains can attract hordes of these vermin and repellents can keep away only to an extent. The best way out is to walk quickly through such places and to stand on a rock when taking a breather or while having refreshments. The ideal way to stop bleeding when bitten is to stick a piece of newspaper on the wound and later apply an antiseptic to prevent itching.
Recently I visited the UAE but before I was to leave for the airport I stood outside on a lawn as the mobile range indoors was weak and called up a taxi service for a cab. Within a few hours I had boarded the plane and was relaxing in my seat when I felt a chill in my socks. I gently probed my ankle and noticed blood. Not wanting to alarm my fellow passengers, I retreated to the toilet. After I removed my shoes and socks I detected a well-fed leech in my shoe. I stuck some tissue on the wound, wrapped the parasite with more tissue and flushed it out. When I returned to my seat I espied the flight attendant offering whisky to the passengers. I requested for a mini peg, not that I wanted to swig the brew but without being noticed I slowly applied the alcohol, a common native medicine, on my wound.