No scientific research - but proof pops up in renewed energy
September 2, 2002 Monday
Chris Zdeb, Journal Staff Writer
Norm Tupper bares a shoulder so that grandson Stephen can hold the pointy end of a honey bee against his skin until it stings him.
Although there is no scientific evidence to support it, Tupper believes bee venom controls the symptoms of the multiple sclerosis he's had for almost 30 years, since he was diagnosed at age 23. He takes a shot or two every couple of days or once a week, whenever his hands or legs start to feel weak or he starts to feel listless. When he first started the therapy, three years ago, he would have as many as 12 stings every two days.
"I got news for you," he says. "It doesn't hurt near as much as you think it does. Only one in every five bees is mean." They are, however, a little trickier to take than a pill.
The first buzzer Stephen, 9, takes from a small, wooden bee box with his pincers, turns out to be a dud -- a drone. Drones don't have stingers.
Stephen doesn't know his own strength and accidentally squishes the second bee.
The third escapes from the box and everybody in the room makes like a boxer bobbing and weaving to avoid the stinging blows of an opponent, as it zooms about before settling near a window.
The fourth one gets the job done.
"At first it was freaky, but now it's just one of those things," grins Tupper, who has his own bee hive in the backyard of his home near South Cooking Lake.
He went through all sorts of drug therapy over the years, but everything he tried didn't work very well.
"Before I got on the bee therapy I was getting very weak and napping three times a day. Walking was a real effort. There would be times I would be crawling just to get where I was going," he says.
"You and I wouldn't be talking like we are today because I had a lot of cognitive difficulties, a lot of trouble thinking and communicating for too long."
A friend saw a TV show about been venom therapy for people with MS and bugged Tupper for two years to try it.
"But I was like 'Yeah, right , I'm going to sting myself with bees,' " he says.
An article in the weekly paper quoting a local woman, about how bee venom therapy had improved her nephew's MS, finally gave him someone he could actually call and talk to.
Tupper also talked to his specialist, who dismissed the therapy as an old wives tale.
"I did it anyway."
He found a beekeeper to supply him with some honey bees and the woman in the article referred him to a local medical doctor, who had recently retired, to administer Tupper's first bee sting.
"It made me feel a lot better that a doctor was doing it," he says, though the sting didn't make him feel any different. His symptoms started to improve after a second sting, two days later.
"Now that could have been the MS easing off on its own," Tupper concedes, "but I had a lot more energy, I was staying awake longer, I could get up and walk more. My friends noticed I wasn't staggering and holding on to walls for support."
His specialist noticed a difference when Tupper came in for his annual checkup a short time later, but dismissed the bee venom as the cause of the improvement.
Bee-lievers say the venom reduces inflammation, boosts the body's immune system and promotes nerve transmissions. It's also believed bee venom stimulates the production of cortisone.
People with MS, arthritis, depression, chronic fatigue, shingles, skin tumours, premenstrual syndrome and other problems claim to receive some benefit from the therapy.
It got Tupper off medication three years ago.
"During my last visit in May the doctor told me it was the best he had seen me in 12 years. I think he kind of believes the bee venom has something to do with it," Tupper says.
Jeannine Christopherson, coordinator of the MS Clinic at the University of Alberta, cautions that bee venom therapy is not a bona fide treatment.
"Probably a steroid would do the same thing," she says.
There is anecdotal evidence, but no scientific research to prove venom does anything or that it's safe. She knows it does not work for everyone with MS.
"I have had patients who have taken it and they have ended up with welts all over their body, too afraid to go to their doctor because they know the doctor doesn't want them to be doing this," Christopherson says.
Tupper only knows that it's helped him to regain some independence.
"I lost my licence for 12 years because the MS affected my vision and concentration and coordination enough that I could not drive. After I started using the bee venom, the doctor did a physical, and knowing me, saw the improvement. When I went back and asked for my licence he gave it back to me. I've been driving now ...this will be the third year."
A plumber by trade, Tupper is currently on AISH, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, but hopes for not too much longer. He feels strong enough to start looking for work.
Tupper can administer his own stings, but wife Louise does most of the therapy because he prefers to be stung along his spine, the area most affected by MS, and the area that is focused on by acupuncturists and acupressurists in their treatments, he says.
Experts recommend people using the therapy should stop for a few months each year to allow the body to get back into healing itself. So when he ran out of bees and his hive died last year, Tupper figured, since he was feeling strong, it was the perfect time to quit and see how things went.
"I could feel myself slowly weakening but it took about eight months before I started having trouble walking around.
"Either the effects of the venom had slowly worn off or the MS had been in remission, it's hard to say," but he began to feel better as soon as he restarted the therapy.
Tupper has a couple of friends who come to him for a sting when their tendonitis acts up.
"Everybody agrees there's some benefit.
"Is it mind over matter? I don't know. I was a non-believer, but I've
never found anything quite as effective as this. I know it works for me."
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