PINAR DEL RIO, CUBA – At age 71, Cuban peasant Pepe Casañas fends off the typical aches and pains of his age in a unique, and effective, way. His secret: letting himself be stung every now and then by a scorpion, the venom of which has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Although anyone who has been stung by a scorpion says that it hurts a good deal, for Pepe it's "just a minor sting," which he endures at least once a month using one of the three or four scorpions that he keeps close at hand in his house.
"The sting doesn't hurt me a bit. And if they're using it as a treatment for cancer in Cuba, it has to be good," said Pepe, who sometimes keeps a scorpion in his hat in case he starts to feel a pain he needs to treat.
"About eight years ago, I started with this scorpion stuff. My bones were beginning to hurt me, arthritis, and it helped me to feel comfortable," Pepe told EFE at his home in the town of Los Palacios in Cuba's far western province of Pinar del Rio.
"I couldn't brush my teeth, or comb my hair. I got a scorpion, squeezed it, and it stung me twice, and look: My arm's doing fine."
Pepe, who comes from a family of beekeepers, began using insect bites – starting with bee stings – as a remedy against pain. He even says his brother cured himself of a disability thanks to bee stings.
Although Pepe's strategy might seem strange as a way to combat the aches and pains that come along at his age, it is a fact that scorpion venom is used in Cuba as the main ingredient in Vidatox, a homeopathic medication that is prescribed mainly to alleviate pain and other symptoms associated with cancer.
In 2006, Cuba started clinical trials to test the efficacy of scorpion venom in cancer treatment and researchers quickly noted that patients' quality of life was substantially improved.
In 2011, the Cuban pharmaceutical firm Labiofam began manufacturing Vidatox.
"A very important use of Vidatox, which we want to promote, is that of an analgesic and anti-inflammatory, for use against cancer, given that any osteoarthritic process such as rheumatism can be treated with this medication," Dr. Fabio Linares, who heads the Vidatox project, told EFE.
According to Linares, "it makes sense" that Pepe feels better after a scorpion sting, since in addition to its analgesic effect, the venom stimulates the body's natural curative mechanisms and immune system.
In a laboratory in the city of Cienfuegos, where the Vidatox project is under way, Linares' team is raising some 7,000 "blue scorpions" (Rhopalurus junceus, a species endemic to Cuba) and is taking 10 or 12 venom extractions from each of them every year before releasing them back into the environment.
Some 17,000 bottles of Vidatox are produced and sold over the counter every year in Cuba and in 15 other countries around the world.
In Cuba alone, an estimated 65,000 people have used the remedy to alleviate cancer pain.