Crisp, green uniforms. Shiny, stainless tools. Single-use items, autoclaves, everything clean, and sterile. This is what most of us think of when hearing about medicine – that because we hardly ever look under its surface. The things that go on behind the scenes of medicine can be pretty distasteful at times, to say the least. And this is not about the weird but useful health tips an old, experienced general practitioner will give the locals in a small town. This is about the highly effective but pretty disgusting procedures and treatments modern medicine has to offer.
You may have heard of this – and you have possibly dismissed the idea as a piece of fake news or a joke. After all, what medical treatment could involve something as uninviting as human stool (aka feces or poop)? While it definitely sounds weird and completely unsanitary, it is a bona fide treatment. And it is administered orally.
Fecal microbiota transplant also referred to as a stool transplant, is not about feces but about the microbes living in one’s colon. The procedure itself can be done in several ways, through colonoscopy, enema or ingestion of a capsule containing freeze-dried material harvested from a healthy donor. Stool transplant will introduce healthy bacterial flora to the recipient’s colon – this is an effective treatment of Clostridioides difficile infection, ulcerative colitis, and other gastrointestinal conditions.
Maggots. Most of us shudder in disgust when thinking about them. Maggots are the larvae of the flies, usually associated with death, decay, and the smell of decomposing flesh. Using them in medicine definitely sounds unsanitary – even unimaginable to most. The fact is, in turn, that these disgusting larvae have earned a place for themselves in modern medicine.
Maggots can be used in the treatment of chronic ulcers. Their favorite food is dead flesh, after all, but they won’t touch the living – this makes them perfect to keep various wounds and ulcers clean. Moreover, the maggots of the common green bottle fly are an FDA-approved treatment of conditions like non-healing necrotic wounds, foot ulcers, non-healing post-surgical wounds, and pressure ulcers, among others.
If you are disgusted by maggots, wait until you hear of intestinal nematodes or helminths. These parasitic worms thrive in the intestines of a healthy individual, causing all kinds of symptoms from abdominal pain to impaired cognitive development. Using them in medicine? There can be no such thing.
Except there is – even though their use as a treatment is experimental at this point. Helminthic therapy is a form of immunotherapy that is used to treat various immune disorders and autoimmune diseases like ulcerative colitis, coeliac, asthma, and Crohn’s disease. Like other experimental therapies, this can also have side effects, so it’s just relatively safe but it shows a lot of promise.