A stinging therapy for Lyme disease
Chronic illness can be the ultimate litmus test for a person’s fortitude.
And so can a possible remedy.
“In modern medicine, they have no relief for me except pain medication,” Jenny Menzel of Aberdeen said recently.
Now, Menzel is more than 500 bee stings into an unusual venom remedy she said is helping her manage Lyme disease.
Menzel is not sure when she contracted Lyme disease. Although she has lived in Aberdeen most of her life, she frequents Minnesota, where the black-legged tick is prevalent. That’s the known carrier of Lyme disease.
Now 31, she started feeling ill when she was 18. After a positive test result in 2010, she began conventional therapies, like courses of antibiotics.
But they didn’t help.
In recent years, Menzel’s research included consulting with doctors and immersing herself in the online Lyme community, which has led her to try herbal therapies, massage, acupuncture and other holistic approaches for relief. In December, she decided to try a therapy she said has been around for thousands of years, although it’s generally deemed experimental.
“I came across the bee venom stuff in 2014. I read the article and said, ‘this is nuts’ and I put it on the back burner,” Menzel said.
Then she started getting sick again in 2015.
“After so many failed attempts (with treatments), you’re on your own. You have to find a way to live and be a normal functioning member in society,” Menzel said.
So she decided to give bee venom therapy a shot.
How approach works
The therapy uses honey bee stings as a way to jump start the immune system so it attacks Lyme disease. There are also therapies where extracted venom is injected into a person, but they are much more expensive, Menzel said, so she uses live bees she gets from Allen’s Apitherapy Bees in California.
Menzel continues to see her own physician, Samuel Nyamu, who specializes in internal medicine at Sanford Aberdeen Clinic. He was her doctor in 2011 when the American News first interviewed her about Lyme disease. At that time, she was using conventional therapies.
According to Avera Health spokesman Jay Gravholt, Lyme disease can be a debilitating and tragic disease. Numerous treatments are available, while others are still being tested, he said.
“The use of bee venom therapy for Lyme disease is not yet FDA-approved and is not considered an evidence-based best practice for treatment of the disease,” Gravholt said in a written statement after consulting with physicians.
With the bee venom therapy, there is a risk of severe allergic reaction, Menzel said. She visited Nyamu to ask for an epinephrine kit or “EpiPen,” a medicine that can counteract anaphylactic shock. There are times she has felt a tightness in her throat, but otherwise the symptoms of the stings themselves have been mild.
Hard on finances
The cost of conventional therapies and working with Lyme-literate doctors to combat the arthritis and fatigue she attributes to Lyme disease was draining her financially, she said. Menzel described Lyme-literate doctors as those who have special training in diagnosing the disease without a blood test. She said that can be difficult because Lyme also mimics other chronic illnesses, like fibromyalgia. That, combined with false negative tests, means diagnosis and treatment are challenging.
“I was going to a Lyme-literate doctor, but after two years it was, money wise, sucking me dry. And I couldn’t work much,” Menzel said.
It was costing $2,000 a month and insurance wasn’t covering it. There are no Lyme-literate doctors in South Dakota, Menzel added.
“A couple people in my close-knit group — that aren’t crazy — were finding a lot of success with this bee venom stuff. I started looking into it more and the cost is really low — $100 a month,” she said.
She gets a weekly shipment of about 50 bees from California.
“I keep them in a little tiny apiary,” she said. “It comes with a pseudo queen.”
A pseudo queen is a small, translucent yellow cylinder about the thickness of a wooden kebab skewer and is about 2 inches long. It gives off the scent of a queen bee, keeping the worker bees coming back to the apiary when Menzel lets them out during the day. By dusk, they return to the apiary.
Using the bees
When it’s time for her therapy, Menzel uses a pair of tweezers to pick up a bee.
“The trickiest part is plucking them out of the contraption,” she said. “I pluck them up by their wing (and) have reverse tweezers to pick them up by their neck.”
Then she puts the abdomen of the bee next to her skin and stings herself on the back.
“If you just stick to back stings, you can get cured in two to three years,” she said. “Yesterday, I did 12 (stings). I’ve done as many as 20 in one sitting. I’m at 530 stings to date — I’m decent at it.”
The bees do die because the stinger stays in her skin, rupturing their abdomen. She quickly crushes the bee to cease any possible suffering. The stingers stay in her skin for up to 20 minutes, allowing all the venom to drain into her.
Menzel had assistance from her father in the beginning. He was fascinated by the bees, she said, but struggled with the fact that he was inflicting more pain on his daughter. Now, for the most part, she does the treatment solo.
Through her research, Menzel has found that this therapy works because it’s sending a message to the immune system.
“Imagine a fish tank with dirt (disease) — it settles to the bottom,” she said. “Bee venom goes in shakes it up to the surface so you can clean it out. The antimicrobial agents attack the microbes that are there. The immune system says we’re going to address that venom. It sees this venom is attacking this illness and it wakes up the immune system.”
The therapy is not an immediate fix, but Menzel is going to continue with the therapy through September and then re-evaluate her symptoms.
“The biggest indication that it’s working is that I feel worse. A conventional person might say, ‘Sounds like it’s not working.’ But that’s the indication that you are getting better,” Menzel said.
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• Jay Gravholt, spokesman for Avera Health said according to in-house physicians, “The use of bee venom therapy for Lyme disease is not yet FDA approved and is not considered an evidence-based best practice for treatment of the disease.”
More on Lyme disease
• Lyme disease is transmitted through the bite of a black-legged tick, more commonly referred to as a deer tick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Alyssa Anderson, assistant professor of biology at Northern State University, said the deer tick has been found in five eastern counties in South Dakota.
• Anderson also said ticks are thick this year, but she’s referring to the much more common dog tick, also known as the wood tick. She suggests proactive measures like wearing bug repellent, tucking pants into your socks and wearing light clothing so it’s easier to see the ticks, whenever you are out in the country or in tall grass.
• “The Lyme tick is not really common in South Dakota,” Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist for the South Dakota Department of Health, said. “Researchers at the University of South Dakota just found a few in Clay County, but it’s never been found in Brown County. We had five cases of Lyme in South Dakota reported last year.”
• “Brainerd is the hotbed of Lyme disease in Minnesota. South Dakota people travel, and that’s how they get infected,” Kightlinger said.
• May is Lyme disease awareness month. Menzel continues to advocate for awareness of the disease. One campaign for awareness is Take a Bite Out of Lyme. This challenge asks participants to film or photograph themselves taking a bite out of a lime and post it on social media. For more information, go online to lymediseasechallenge.org.