In the beauty-treatment equivalent of leech therapy, fish pedicures allow spa-goers to have dead skin nibbled off their feet by Garra rufa, an inch-long toothless carp also known as “doctor fish.”
But now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a report by U.K.’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science, which investigated the types of bacteria associated with Garra rufa. The British fish detectives intercepted Indonesian shipments of the fish which were headed to salons. Test results showed that those fish carried strains of several bacteria that could cause soft tissue infections for people with open sores, skin cuts, underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, and compromised immune systems as a result of AIDS, cancer, or advanced age.
And to add to the creepy factor, the strains were resistant to many medications.
Native to Southeast Asia, the bizarre ritual (which sounds like a suitable pastime for the ladies who lunch in the Capitol of Panem) has been an increasingly trendy treatment since 2008, when salons began offering the hungry fish as an alternative to razors for smoothing rough skin. (You can read all about the treatment here: Fish Pedicures are Ticklish and Controversial.)
“Our study identified some of the species of bacteria associated with this fish species, including some that can cause infections in both fish and humans,” lead researcher David Verner-Jeffreys told a wire service.
Water, he added, is a fertile breeding ground -- and when partnered with bacteria thriving on fish scales or waste, even the tiniest cut could allow infection to happen readily. In April 2011, a bacterial outbreak among 6,000 doctor fish brought from Indonesia to British beauty venues revealed colonies of Streptococcus agalactiae, a group of bacteria that can lead to sepsis, meningitis, or pneumonia.
As of last spring, more than 10 states had banned the practice, according to the CDC. Reasons cited included: The inability to clean fish pedicure tubs between patrons; the impossibility of disinfecting or sanitizing live fish; regulations that specify fish in a salon must be kept in an aquarium; and a humanitarian justification that to entice the fish to feed on dead human skin, they must be starved "which might be considered animal cruelty." After the new findings, more states are expected to enact similar bans.
The report appears in the CDC-published journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.