Argentine Rx: Take 70 Beetles And Call Me in the Morning
Doctors Doubt Assertion Bugs Can Cure Ailments
By MATT MOFFETT
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Wednesday, August 6, 2003
OBERA, Argentina -- The stress of living in this economically hobbled nation can wear a body down. So Ruben Dieminger takes strong measures to boost his immune system.
Prying open a plastic container that holds a wriggling mass of small brown beetles, Mr. Dieminger shook about a dozen into a glass of lemon-flavored soft drink. Then he lifted the glass to his lips, and ... chug-a-bug.
"That's what I needed," he said.
Mr. Dieminger, 40 years old, is among a growing number of Argentines who maintain that there are times that everyone needs a dose of this Asian bug, known to scientists as ulomoides dermestoides and to laymen as the darkling beetle. According to beetle-eating proponents, secretions from the insect strengthen the body's defenses against cancer, AIDS, asthma and diabetes, among other ills.
People generally consume the beetles by dropping them in a glass of water, mixing them into yogurt or placing them in capsules. Mr. Dieminger advises adherents to start by swallowing a single beetle and then building up their intake to 70 a day. The pea-sized bugs are eaten live.
Skeptics say bug-eating itself is a symptom of the decline of a once proud and prosperous nation. Only a couple of years ago, Argentina boasted a peso that was equal to the dollar and a well-regarded medical system that once produced two Nobel Prize winners. Now the beaten-down peso trades at almost three to the dollar, some doctors are emigrating and some hospitals can't afford bed sheets and rubber gloves, let alone expensive cancer medicines.
"It tells you how far we have fallen that people now believe in magic beetles," says Simon Manuel Breier, chief of oncology at Israelite Hospital in Buenos Aires.
Most Argentine doctors dismiss outright any claims that the beetles confer health benefits. And some farmers fear the grain-munching insects could escape and go after their crops. But at a time when Argentines are desperate for anything to believe in, beetlemania has taken hold. Throughout large parts of the country the bugs are changing hands, generally for free or for a small charge, via radio call-in programs, Internet groups and neighborhood solidarity organizations.
Mr. Dieminger's Web site (www.dieminger.com/gorgojo) has helped connect thousands of sick people looking for beetles with bug cultivators who have some to spare. If the Web site isn't able to match up a person seeking beetles with a supplier, Mr. Dieminger mails out insects from his own colonies in little cardboard ravioli boxes with cloth-covered vents. He charges only for postage. The real reward from sharing bugs, Mr. Dieminger says, is the almost cult-like fervor of adherents, who have sent him gifts of poems, salamis, anchovies, oranges and sweets.
In the northern city of Parana, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary distributes the six-legged remedy to parishioners for a nominal fee. Pastor Antonio Orlando Mattiassi says he got interested in the beetles two years ago after hearing that a man with cancer of the esophagus had recovered after having some beetles that had been crushed in a blender pumped into his stomach through a tube. The church's bulletin describes the bugs as a "gift from God ... especially for the poorest who can't afford expensive medicines."
Angelica Fernandez, who takes beetles as part of a cancer treatment, said that swallowing the bugs with water made her feel nauseated at first. But she got over the queasiness by visualizing the beetles thrashing cancer cells with their little legs.
May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that from the time of the ancient Egyptians to the recent biotech boom, people have sought medical cures from insects. Bugs also are used in traditional Chinese medicine and occasionally show up on dinner plates in parts of Asia. "Insects are loaded with chemicals that help them defend themselves from their enemies," says Ms. Berenbaum. Nevertheless, she notes that purported insect remedies have often been fraught with hype. Claims that eating darkling beetles can help cure an array of illnesses strike her as "hopelessly optimistic."
Still, the beetles have captured the imagination of thousands of Argentines. A magazine in Santiago del Estero province touted them as "Miracle Bugs" after an 82-year-old local man claimed the insects helped him beat prostate cancer. Daniel Bautista Menjoulou, a fledgling documentary-maker whose mother has used the bugs as part of her cancer treatment, is filming testimonials to the beetles in order to bring their story to the screen.
The man generally considered to be responsible for the bugs' arrival in Argentina is a farmer named Arnoldo Rosler, who lives near Argentina's freewheeling northern border with Paraguay. Mr. Rosler says that in 1991, when he was suffering from skin cancer, he struck up a fateful conversation with another customer at a tire repair shop. The man promised to send Mr. Rosler a fail-safe cure. A few days later, Mr. Rosler received a box in the mail from Paraguay with some beetles in it. Desperate to be rid of a facial sore that bled every night, Mr. Rosler followed the accompanying instructions and began eating the bugs. The cancer soon faded away, he says.
Word of Mr. Rosler's recovery spread. By 2001, the trickle of visitors coming to his farm to seek beetles had grown to about 20 people a day. "People liked the beetles' powerful properties, but even more, they liked that they were free," Mr. Rosler says.
About that time, Mr. Dieminger, a computer-systems analyst who lives about 20 miles from Mr. Rosler, got wind of the beetles. "Here was an opportunity to put our region on the map," says Mr. Dieminger, whose Web site, book and pamphlets have helped turn the beetles into a national phenomenon.
Mr. Dieminger cautions that the beetles are complementary rather than alternative medicine, and that patients should continue their normal course of treatment. He maintains that the lack of scientific proof of the beetle's benefit isn't the fault of his shoestring operation. "We'd love for someone with money and a laboratory to find out what's inside these beetles," he says.
Miguel Angel Narvaez, a former Argentine army sergeant, had suffered severe health problems ever since a British mortar shell exploded near him during the 1982 Falkland Islands War. Over the years, he endured hearing loss and splitting headaches. Later he developed brain tumors, and doctors tried chemotherapy and brain surgery. Mr. Narvaez, 45, almost resigned himself to an irreversible physical decline.
But then, he says, two years ago he tried beetles, and everything changed. He began to sleep well again, his headaches diminished and his sex drive returned. Soon, Mr. Narvaez was feeling sprightly enough to start making rounds in his neighborhood, giving beetles to sick people who can't afford medicine. "God put every creature on earth for a reason," he says, "even the beetle."