A 55-year-old woman from Spain is dead after undergoing multiple treatments that utilized the stingers of live bees as an acupuncture method, according to a report from the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology.
The method, referred to as “apitherapy,” is used by New Age types and alternative medicine proponents and is not backed up by any form of science. Nevertheless, it’s been popular with celebrities and alternative health gurus such as Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle brand Goop. As Ars Technica points out, Paltrow and other likeminded people claim that the venom from insects can be used to treat conditions such as “inflammation, arthritis, generalized pain, scarring, and skin issues.”
But evidence to support those claims is thin. According to numerous studies, the procedure comes with serious risks that include anaphylaxis, stroke, and death. But as evidenced in the deceased woman’s case, death can even come to people who have no history of allergies to bee venom. Counterintuitively, more exposure to the venom over time can result in an adverse event, sometimes without warning.
According to the woman’s medical report, she had undergone the therapy once every four weeks for two years. In that time up until her death, she experienced no issues. During her final treatment, she reportedly had trouble breathing and lost consciousness.
From Ars Technica:
Personnel at the apitherapy clinic were unprepared for the medical emergency and could only provide her with methylprednisolone, a drug that reduces inflammation. It took 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. By that time, her systolic blood pressure (the top number of blood pressure readings) plummeted to 42 mmHg. (A normal range is often considered to be from 90 to 119 mmHg.) Emergency medical personnel arriving on the scene promptly gave her a double dose of adrenaline, saline infusion, intravenous corticosteroids, and antihistamines.
Though her blood pressure and heart rate stabilized on the way to the hospital, doctors there determined that she had suffered a massive stroke from severe anaphylaxis (acute allergic reaction) and slipped into a permanent coma. She died several weeks later from multi-organ failure.
In a review of apitherapy by the science journal PLOS One, adverse effects such as “trivial skin reactions that usually resolve over several days to life-threatening severe immunological responses such as anaphylaxis” were common.
The woman from Spain isn’t the only known case of death resulting from the treatment. In 2011, a 65-year-old woman from South Korea died after undergoing a course.
Other celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian, Kate Middleton, and Victoria Beckham have endorsed bee venom products, But Paltrow is probably the most vocal proponent. In a 2016 piece for The New York Times, she said she likes to be the “guinea pig to try everything.”
“I’ve been stung by bees,” Paltrow said. “It’s a thousands of years old treatment called apitherapy. People use it to get rid of inflammation and scarring. It’s actually pretty incredible if you research it. But, man, it’s painful.”
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