Pasadena Star News By Zen Vuong August 1, 2015
ALHAMBRA >> An Alhambra acupuncturist’s license is on the line after state medical regulators alleged he was “grossly negligent” when using bees to sting patients as part of a medical treatment, an attorney said.
For the past four years, Xin Sheng “Tom” Zhou has used bee sting therapy to treat diseases and chronic pain, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and migraines.
The use of honeybee products, such as bee venom and honey, to treat an assortment of ailments is not uncommon. At issue in Zhou’s case is his use of a bee stinger to inject the venom into patients.
The California Department of Consumer Affairs’ Acupuncture Board filed an accusation, or formal statement of charges, against Zhou on July 23, saying he was repeatedly and grossly negligent in his practice because his office doesn’t have an allergic reaction kit, epinephrine or over-the-counter medication for patients who experience severe adverse reactions to bee stings.
Medical regulators threatened Zhou with license suspension or probation as well as mandatory repayment of investigation and enforcement costs. He is scheduled to appear before an administrative hearing Monday.
“The use of a bee stinger as the delivery mechanism of venom is not within the standard of care and is considered to be an extreme departure from the standard of care,” the legal document states. “The standard of care requires bee venom to be administered in a way which is comparable to the herbals, e.g. topically, orally consumed liquid or tablet or capsule.”
Zhou stopped the alternative procedure when a dispute arose, but his practice at 701 W. Valley Blvd. Suite 53 is still bustling.
“Please give me permission to get bee sting therapy,” Monica Weerasinghe, who suffers from ALS, scribbled on paper because she could barely talk. Needles pricked her body as she lay on an acupuncture table.
Unable to pay her doctor’s fees, Weerasinghe, brings small gifts like Toblerone when she comes in for weekly hour-long sessions. Two years ago, Weerasinghe couldn’t speak a single word, said Angelica Ulloa, Zhou’s assistant. But after receiving two treatments involving bees stinging her temple, Weerasinghe could talk and walk again, Ulloa said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved bee sting therapy. In fact, it is a potentially risky treatment that could produce life-threatening allergic reactions, said Dr. Michael Levine, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
“There is very, very limited data in lab settings to suggest that some of the components of bee venom might decrease lab markers of inflammation,” he said. “There is incredibly limited human data in actual studies to suggest that there is actual benefits to it.”
American Apitherapy Society Inc., which has more than 1,600 members, according to its website, believes the medicinal use of honeybee products such as bee venom, honey and royal jelly could treat immune system, neurologic, musculoskeletal and infectious problems, including hay fever, ALS, shingles, scar pain, tendonitis and spinal pain. These practitioners also use apitherapy to treat wounds, sprains, fractures and tumors, according to the group’s website.
“The board’s biggest problem is the use of the bee stinger,” said John Dratz Jr., Zhou’s attorney. “They don’t have a problem with bee venom. Bee sting therapy is the most effective way to deliver it historically, and it’s still being used. We feel that it’s safe, and we’ve not gotten any solid, scientific evidence from the board side that it’s not safe.”
If a patient experiences an allergic reaction, Zhou could use herbal medicine and acupuncture to manage it or he could employ an EpiPen located in his office to deal with anaphylactic shock, Dratz said. None of his 1,000 or so patients have suffered a severe allergic reaction in the thousands of times he has practiced bee sting therapy in the past four years, he said.
Nevertheless, “the Acupuncture Board stands by the accusation filed against Xin Sheng Zhou,” said Cristina Valdivia, spokeswoman for the medical regulators.
Zhou started his treatments with one sting as an allergy test. He used a pair of tweezers to pluck a bee from a small box filled with hundreds of them, iced the patient’s skin, then forced the insect to stab a strategic spot. He removed the stinger immediately during the test prick but thereafter left it in for about five minutes, he said. The number of bees used depends on the patient’s condition, but it was never more than a dozen, he said.
Dr. John H. Smith Jr., a Pasadena-based allergist and immunologist, said without knowing exactly how much venom is in stingers, a practitioner could subject his patients to too much and possibly induce anaphylactic shock. Some people are extremely allergic, so even a small amount of bee venom could cause extreme reactions. Others have a higher tolerance but are still allergic. Thus multiple tests involving differing amounts is needed, he said.
Bee venom acupuncture has been used in Eastern Asia since at least the 2nd century B.C. and is becoming more popular in Korea, according to a 2005 report published in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal. The therapy is also reportedly growing in popularity in China.
Some people in the United States also practice the alternative therapy. Dr. Andrew Kochan’s regenerative injection practice in Sherman Oaks offered bee sting therapy for six years before he opted for more hygienic bee venom in a syringe, he said.
In the past 25 years, he said he has treated several hundred patients for conditions such as osteoarthritis, acute tendonitis and postherpetic neuralgia — a complication of shingles that could produce blistering pain. Bee venom injections are an extremely safe remedy, he said.
“This is a treatment that’s been around for thousands of years,” Kochan said. “The Chinese used it. The Egyptians used it. The Greeks used it. It’s well documented in all the medical texts from various ancient civilizations and has survived. I’ve done it for 25 years, and I’ve seen people have complete relief of certain problems after my administering of it.”