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Comeback in Medicine

These slimy and wriggly creatures that are guaranteed to turn the stomach of the most hardened doctor and the most stoic patient are making a comeback at the operating table.

A nibble from one of these creatures, whose closest relative is the earthworm, can save limbs and even lives, say doctors who consider leeches to be a valuable aid in microsurgery.

The unusual breakthrough came after US physician Dr Roy Sawyer became convinced that the bloodsuckers, so widely used by doctors in former times, had something to offer modern medicine. He set up a small leech farm as a cottage industry in his home in Swansea, Wales.

Dr Sawyer and his team hit upon a proven use for these creatures. Applied to wounds caused by accidental amputations, leeches can play an important role in helping a reattached limb knit back together.

The tiny animals that Measure between 5 cm and 7 cm in length, are used to remove congealed blood and prevent circulation blockages. "If someone cuts their finger off in an accident, and a surgeon re-attaches it, the arteries are relatively thick, so there is no problem there. But the veins are so tiny, and, if they have been damaged during amputation, they are very difficult to reattach," explained Gower, manager of Biopharm in Wales. As a result, although blood can flow into the re-attached limb via the arteries, it cannot flow back out again as it should do, via the veins. The blockage soon causes the re-attached part to go black and develop gangrene, and eventually it has to be re-amputated. This is where the leeches are introduced. They have a natural anti-coagulant in their saliva which keeps the blood flowing and restores circulation. As soon as the limb develops a bluish tinge, the surgeon knows that he must act quickly. "That's the signal that the leech must come in," said Gower.

Once latched on, the creature will feed on the blood of the patient for about 20 minutes before it drops off, satiated. The wound it leaves will bleed for another 10 hours. This keeps the blood flowing into the attachment and out again, causing artificial circulation within the limb or finger. All this call be done by resorting to drugs.

The treatment may sound gruesome, but it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the medical world. Leeches are now used in all major plastic surgeries, as well as in burns and reconstruction units in Britain in more than 100 hospitals.

The number of leeches needed depends on the size and severity of the wound. As many as 200 of the small bloodsuckers, which cost about US$6 each, can be necessary to save a severed leg.

Like any instrument that comes into contact with blood in a medical setting, the bloodsuckers have to be disposed of after use, in order to avoid the risk of passing oil infection or diseases such as AIDS. When their last meal is over, they are humanely killed.

Leeches that are used have been on a starvation regime for at least six months. That is not cruel as it sounds. A leech can easily go for a year or 18 months without food. "Obviously, it is no use sending out a leech that is fed, because it simply would not be interested," said Gower.

The first recorded use of leeches for medical purposes was in India in 1000 BC. Down the centuries, leeches have been used to treat headaches, gout and even madness in patients as illustrious as Stalin, Napoleon, and George Washington. Leeches are fast becoming accepted in the medical world. While patients may find the idea gruesome and turn pale on hearing about the treatment in store for them, there is no doubt they will not refuse it if they are forced to choose between losing a limb, a nose or ear, or just having a couple of leeches feed on them for 20 minutes.


Which word in paragraph 2 gives a clue to the size of the leech ?

    (A) nibble
    (B) earthworm


    (D) creature

Dr sawyer and his team hit upon a proven use of leeches. What is the proven use ? That leeches can

    (A) be widely used in research
    (B) provide certain useful enzymes
    (C) be used by hospitals on a large scale

be used to help improve blood circulation in re-joined limbs


In paragraph 4, it is said that leeches are used for accidental amputations. What inference can be drawn from this phrase ?

    (A) That leeches do not work on limbs deliberately cut off

That some people lose their limbs through no fault of their own

    (C) That leeches work well on limbs severed in accidents
    (D) That all accidents cause limbs to be cut off

When will a limb suffer from gangrene ?

    (A) When there is insufficient blood
    (B) When there is no blood flow in the arteries

When there is an obstruction in the free flow of blood in the veins

    (D) When the blood is flowing slowly

How is the leech important to the modern doctor ?

    (A) It helps heart patients.
    (B) It restores circulation.

It has anti-coagulant properties.

    (D) It helps in the knitting of severed limbs.
  6. Which word or words in paragraph 6 indicate that a leech is difficult to shake of once it is in close contact with its victim ?

latched on

    (B) feed on
    (C) satiated
    (D) 20 minutes
  7. Why is leech treatment gaining rapid acceptance by reconstruction and other units in hospitals throughout the world ?
    (A) Leeches are cheaper than drugs.
    (B) Leeches are easily bred.
    (C) This is in keeping with alternative medicine treatment.

The body need not be pumped with drugs to facilitate blood flow.

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  Answers : 1) C    2) D    3) B    4) C    5) C     6) A     7) D

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Comprehension 1


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