IIt was quite unusual for a previously healthy 37-year-old man to suffer from sudden perforation of the esophagus, a rare and life-threatening condition usually caused by prolonged and violent vomiting.
But even stranger, the man, who was also in severe abdominal and chest pain when he arrived at a Sunshine Coast hospital, had three small, dark burn marks lined up on his left shoulder.
As hospital staff asked him standard questions about what he was doing before he fell ill, the man said he had participated in a kambo ritual.
“What is kambo?” Young doctor Christopher Darlington remembers asking himself the question while helping colleagues treat the patient, who had to undergo surgery to repair his esophagus and spent 18 days in hospital.
” I had never heard of it. And then I found out that its use came from the Amazon as part of a tribal ritual and somehow, as a result, we were dealing with esophageal perforation on the Sunshine Coast.
“How is it going?”
It was the first case of a perforated esophagus caused by a kambo ritual in Australia and only the second kambo-related case worldwide, prompting Darlington to write about the patient in an April article in the journal Oxford. Medicine Case Reports.
Darlington fears more cases will emerge and says doctors need to be aware.
What is kambo?
Kambo is the name given to the secretions of a species of giant leaf frog native to South America. It is used as part of traditional purification ceremonies carried out by indigenous tribes in the Amazon.
A 2022 paper published by Brazilian doctors in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology describes how the frog’s slow movements mean it can be easily captured by shamanic healers. Once captured, it lies in an X-shape on branches, with its front and hind legs linked.
The frog is pushed and prodded until kambo is secreted from the skin, which is then scraped off with a stick. Then the frog is released – the native healers believing that harming the frog irritates animal spirits.
During purification rituals, a healing shaman burns a line of dots on the participant, with the number of burns varying depending on factors such as the participant’s body part and gender. The kambo is then applied to the burns. The participant drinks large quantities of liquid before the application of the kambo.
“Reactions are often strong and include tachycardia [increased heart rate]severe sweating and vomiting…followed by listlessness and drowsiness,” the Frontiers in Pharmacology article stated.
In recent years, this ritual has been embraced by the alternative health movement, including people claiming to be shamanic healers in Australia, who incorporate its use as part of cleansing rituals.
In her article, Darlington wrote, “The rise of the global alternative health movement has seen the spread of many cultural rituals far from their origins. This is problematic because people can undertake such practices without being aware of the possible risks, preparation steps or traditional dosages.
The use of kambo has now been implicated in deaths around the world, including two in Australia.
Jarrad Antonovich, 46, died after using kambo at the Dreaming Arts festival in NSW in 2021. His esophagus ruptured following severe and repeated vomiting from kambo and the consumption of ayahuasca, a southern psychedelic -American. Natasha Lechner died in 2019 aged 39 during a shamanic kambo ritual in Mullumbimby that went tragically wrong.
Sound the alarm
Professor Vidal Haddad Jr, a toxicologist at São Paulo State University in Brazil, is concerned about the trend.
In an article published in the Journal of Venom Research, Haddad described how Brazil has seen a surge in deaths as kambo is embraced by urban therapy clinics.
Haddad says he became interested in kambo following “a tragic event” in which a patient with heart problems died after participating in the ritual.
“I was trained as a doctor and a biologist and was familiar with the pharmacological and sometimes toxic properties of species secretions,” he says. He wrote about the case and others in the newspaper “as an alert to health teams”.
Given the rarity of the kambo ritual even among indigenous Amazon tribes, he says, it’s unlikely anyone outside of those tribes can claim knowledge of it.
“I worked on several projects at Amazon,” he says. “The indigenous peoples who use kambo live in restricted areas of the Amazon region and the ritual is not spread by the many tribes there. Elsewhere, this trade is done illegally and the extraction of secretions is simple, allowing traffickers to do so.
He says it’s unlikely that tribes who still practice the ritual are aware that it was co-opted by the Western welfare movement.
“Kambo rituals are aimed at physical and spiritual improvement, and to bring good luck in fishing and hunting, and in [treating] the negative state of mind that causes illness,” Haddad said. “They are still supervised by their shamans, who have thousands of years of knowledge in the use of toxins. The indigenous people do not do this constantly, only in situations where effects are needed.
“Exploiting people’s gullibility”
While kambo is banned in Australia, it is sold illegally online and there is no way of knowing whether the substance is legitimate or of animal-safe origin, says Prof Roger Byard, medical examiner at the University of Adelaide.
In an article published in the journal Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology, Byard wrote that “additionally, these products may be adulterated with heavy metals, standard pharmaceutical agents, or parts of endangered plant and animal species.” .
He says adopting wellness rituals involving kambo and other little-known substances could have implications for pathologists performing autopsies if they don’t know the substance was used or ingested and therefore cannot. not be able to identify him as being involved in a death. .
“Routine toxicology doesn’t look for these kinds of preparations,” says Byard.
He describes the adoption of kambo and other indigenous rituals by so-called wellness healers in Australia and other countries as “an example of Western arrogance”.
“A lot of these Western wellness practitioners are preying on people’s gullibility and exploiting those who are skeptical of Western medicine,” says Byard.
“But the techniques of shamans and healers in indigenous communities have been used for hundreds of years and they have been trained to use these substances safely in certain specific situations.
“Yet it is being promoted here in Australia that kambo can be used for everything from chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, vascular problems to Parkinson’s disease when there is no evidence of this. To think that we can walk into a community or spend some time in another country and then take one of their age-old cultural practices and then take it for our own use is absolute western arrogance.