Waldorf woman administers bee stings as therapy for multiple sclerosis Medical community has not studied effects of venom

August 20, 1993|By Kristin Huckshorn | Kristin Huckshorn,Knight-Ridder News Service

WALDORF — An article in the AUG. 20 Howard County edition on the use of bee stings to treat multiple sclerosis should have said the disease is not fatal to most people, according to the National Institute of Health.

* The Sun regrets the error.

WALDORF -- Three mornings a week, an unsteady parade moves up Pat Wagner's front walk. Supported by canes, walkers and wheelchairs, men and women crowd into the living room, bare their midriffs and backs, and ask her to sting them with bees.

"I know it seems pretty strange," says Cindy Slick, 36, a schoolteacher here for her second session of stings. "But look at us. What have we got to lose?"

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Like most of the hundreds of people who have visited Mrs. Wagner's home south of Washington, Ms. Slick suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease that degenerates the central nervous system. Striking in the prime of life, MS often robs its victims of their motor skills and control over bodily functions. No cure exists. Most people die.

So when word spread that Mrs. Wagner, once bedridden with the most serious form of MS, was walking again after undergoing unorthodox sting treatments, lines began to form.

Now, the tract home on Lucy Lane is a Lourdes of the bees.

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, dozens of people show up to receive Mrs. Wagner's free-of-charge stings, courtesy of the honeybees she and her husband, Ray, pluck from a hive installed in their living room wall. Hundreds of requests for

information arrive each week from every state as well as foreign countries. Recently, victims of other nerve and auto-immune disorders -- arthritis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and AIDS -- have begun showing up, too.

"I want the world to know about this," says Mrs. Wagner, 43, who after more than 5,000 stings in a year still walks with some hesitation though other symptoms have improved. "I want the scientific and medical community to try to prove me wrong. They can't. It works."

No scientific evidence proves the sting therapy works or doesn't. No one has conducted a study yet. Bee venom's possible effect on MS victims would be especially difficult to measure because victims often go into remission spontaneously.

But there are some theoretical reasons that a certain protein in the venom might help MS patients, says Dr. John Richert, a neurologist who heads the multiple sclerosis center at Georgetown University Hospital.

Eight of his patients have received stings at Mrs. Wagner's house. Six have quit the treatment, citing no improvement. Two say they feel better. "Sometimes, it's only through anecdotal reports that new therapies catch the attention of the medical community," says Dr. Richert. "Bee venom ought to be studied."

Many physicians like Dr. Richert, while not recommending the stings, don't discourage it either. But Stephen Reingold, vice president for research and medical programs at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, says consumers should use caution, since a bee sting can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Mrs. Wagner, however, says no one has gone into anaphylactic shock. The ambulance service that serves her neighborhood has made no emergency calls to her house, a spokesman said.

Even without the blessing of the medical establishment, an increasing number of people are trying alternative treatments such as bee stings. One in three Americans used such treatments in 1990, according to a recent survey by the New England Journal of Medicine. The new Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health is considering whether to fund a bee venom study as one of its first 20 grants.

Bee stings have been used as a home remedy to treat arthritis for more than 30 years. But they have become popular only recently among MS victims like Mrs. Wagner, who have grown frustrated waiting for the discovery of drugs that would slow the progression of their disease.

Mrs. Wagner, first diagnosed with MS in 1970, turned to bee stings last year after the disease left her "a breathing corpse" -- almost blind, deaf and incontinent, unable, she says, "to wiggle a toe."

Her improvement began immediately, she says. Feeling returned her legs. Her energy level skyrocketed. In two weeks, her hearing returned. Her husband, Ray, said: "I'm buying a beehive."

Mrs. Wagner started telling everyone she knew about the effects of stings. When people began appearing at the front door, the Wagners bought three more hives. They installed a ramp to accommodate wheelchairs. When the kitchen became too crowded, they knocked out a wall, turning the living room, family room and kitchen into one big room. They added volunteers like Mickey Harwell and his wife, Joyce, a victim of MS.

"When I first heard about this, I was really skeptical," says Joyce Harwell, 47. "I thought I was being conned."

She has now been stung about 2,200 times and helps administer stings.

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