RNPS PICTURES OF THE YEAR - Toothless kangal, or "doctor" fish, nibble at the dead skin of a customer's feet at Malaysia's first fish spa in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur's main shopping area, November 13, 2007. Fish spas, popular in Turkish spas where they are used to treat skin diseases, are found in several Asian countries including Singapore and Japan. Picture taken November 13, 2007. REUTERS/Zainal Abd Halim (MALAYSIA)

The National Council of SPCAs has called on Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to investigate the latest pedicure craze in South Africa: flesh-nibbling fish.

Garra Rufa or doctor fish, which originate from the central Middle East, are now used in some health spas to treat eczema and other skin disorders.

But the council is worried the fishy pedicures could spread diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

In spas, the fish feed on dead skin on a person’s feet, which are submerged in a tank.

Caroline Badin, owner of Le Fish Spa in Blouberg, says the fish pedicure has been very popular since her spa introduced it nine months ago.

“We have people asking for the pedicure almost every day,” said Badin, who charges R99 for a half-hour session and R59 for 15 minutes.

Le Fish Spa advertises the pedicure by saying “(the fish’s) soft suction-like nibbling on dead or calloused skin does gradually reveal fresh, healthy tissue, rejuvenating feet, leaving them feeling smoother, softer and more attractive.”

But the NSPCA says it has been investigating the practice and has “discovered international concerns” relating to potential health risks these fish pose.

The NSPCA says the fish may have the potential to transfer viruses/bacteria from people who have HIV or other immunodeficiency disorders.

In October the Mail Online reported that the UK government’s Health Protection Agency said those with diabetes, psoriasis or a weak immune system were particularly vulnerable.

“The concern lies with the fish that eat off of one person’s skin and immediately after, another person is exposed to the same fish and water… As far as we can ascertain, 14 states in the US have banned the fish being used in spas. The UK has also taken a step towards this ban. The main reason cited for this in the media was the concern for the spread of disease,” said Marcelle Meredith, executive director of the NSPCA.

Provincial health MECs were copied on the letter.

But Badin has contested these claims, saying they lack scientific evidence. “I will comply with an investigation only if they can provide me with sound scientific evidence that this treatment is a health risk in the way that is being claimed,” she said.

The NSPCA has asked that no new applications by spas wanting to start the treatment should be accepted until the Department of Health has produced “a definitive report” on the practice.

Fish eat only the dead skin

* Garra rufa, also known as “doctor fish”, occur in the river basins of the northern and central Middle East, mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

* The fish can survive in waters up to 420C. They also live and breed in the outdoor pools of some Turkish spas.

* In 2006, fish spa resorts opened in Japan and Croatia, where the fish were used to clean the bathers at the spa.

* In 2008, the first widely known doctor fish pedicure service was opened in the US in Alexandria, Virginia, and later in Woodbridge, Virginia.

* In 2010 the first British spa opened in Sheffield.

* The fish have been used to help treat patients suffering from various skin disorders, including psoriasis and eczema, since the fish will eat and remove any dead skin.

* They only consume the affected and dead areas of the skin.

* The spa treatment is not meant as a curative option, only as a temporary alleviation of symptoms, and patients usually revisit the spas every few months. - Cape Argus