Kambo - also known as sapo - is a waxy substance harvested by scraping the skin of a live giant monkey frog. Representation image. Wirestock/Gettyimages

Over the past two weeks, shocking and strange testimony regarding the unexpected deaths of two residents has been heard in a little courthouse tucked away in a lush corner of eastern Australia.

Authorities believe Jarrad Antonovich died from injuries sustained from violent vomiting, while Natasha Lechner is thought to have died from a suspected cardiac incident.

Both incidents happened soon after they performed an ancient Amazonian rite involving the use of kambo, a deadly frog mucus.

And both occurred in the northern New South Wales region, which is well-known for its breathtaking beaches and lush rainforests as well as for its alternative therapies sector.

A coroner is now investigating what went wrong and if anything could have been done to save both.

The kambo ceremony: What is it?

A waxy substance called kambo, commonly referred to as sapo, is obtained by scraping the skin of a living giant monkey frog.

The toxin is secreted by the frog, which can be found all throughout the Amazon, as a defense mechanism to kill or scare away animals that try to eat it.

However, during a kambo ceremony, they use it to start a powerful purported detoxifying process.

Small burns are made on the participants' skin after they have consumed more than a liter of water, and the material is then applied to the open wounds.

Blood pressure increases, the heartbeat quickens, and the body begins to cleanse itself by either vomiting or defecating, frequently both. The severity of the symptoms varies, and they normally last up to 30 minutes.

Indigenous people in South America have used kambo for years because they think it helps in hunting and wards off bad luck.

Today, it is a shamanic practice that supporters claim cleanses the body of impurities, promotes mental clarity, and heals a number of illnesses.

However, there is no evidence to support its supposed health benefits, and Australian health regulators have outlawed it.

Deaths, seizures, liver failure, and heart attacks have all been connected to Kambo.

Families call for clarification

Natasha Lechner organized a kambo ceremony on Mar. 8 at her home in Mullumbimby, which is 20 minutes from the seaside town of Byron Bay.

She had developed morbid obesity and used alternative treatments to treat her persistent back pain, BBC reported.

On that particular day, though, she died unconsciously a short time after putting kambo to five minor burns on her chest and arm. After some time, she died.

A court heard that despite the 39-year-old's recent training in kambo, she had not been informed of the risk of sudden death associated with using kambo.

Even though Lechner was with a fellow kambo practitioner who began CPR, no ambulance was called until her housemate returned home 10 minutes later and discovered her friend "foaming" at the mouth. An "acute cardiac event" is thought to have caused her death.

The death of Jarrad Antonovich on Oct. 16, 2021, was more prolonged.

He took kambo while attending a six-day retreat in Kyogle, an hour inland from Byron Bay.

The brain injury he sustained in a vehicle accident two decades prior left him with speech and movement issues, and he also had other chronic problems.

He is believed to have also consumed ayahuasca - another drug, at some point during the evening, which along with triggering hallucinations, often induces severe vomiting.

By 23:30 he'd passed out, finally prompting someone to call an ambulance.

The inquest in the NSW Coroner's Court heard that paramedics afterwards reported seeing some sort of "ceremony" continuing after they arrived and being shooed away from Antonovich by a woman who said they were interfering with his "aura."

Nobody informed the emergency personnel that Antonovich had ingested kambo or ayahuasca. It was suggested to them instead that he was having an asthma attack. His oesophagus had actually ruptured.

Lechner and Antonovich both used alternative therapies to fill up a void they thought existed in conventional medical care.

Now, the families of both people want explanations. They acknowledge that their kids deliberately used the chemical, but they wonder if there was an unwarranted or inexplicable amount of risk.

Glen Antonovich, Jarrad's father, said "something didn't add up" and it "still doesn't".

"There was no medical staff, no risk mitigation," he told.

What follows?

With regard to the two deaths, the state coroner will issue findings and recommendations.

The inquests have heard that Magistrate Teresa O'Sullivan prioritizes finding measures to save such fatalities from happening in the future. Were there "opportunities missed" to assist Lechner and Antonovich, or "safeguards" that should have been in place?

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of Australia classified kambo as a schedule 10 toxin in 2021, the highest level of danger for drugs and substances.

"They're deemed to be of such great danger to human safety that you can't even use it in research," says Daniel Perkins, who heads a psychedelics research institute in Melbourne.

"There's this growing proportion of people who have tried Western treatments - for primarily mental health conditions - and found that these just hadn't been successful," Dr Perkins says.

While some of them pose risks, there is disagreement about whether outlawing complementary therapies or medications will genuinely improve patient safety. Although drugs like ayahuasca have been prohibited for a long time, "if there's a demand for it, then people still use it... and you don't have any visibility about what is happening - either the benefits or harms that are going on."

Authorities can establish minimal safety criteria, such as training requirements and product quality standards, whether a pharmaceutical is decriminalized or regulated.

Dr. Perkins cites the TGA's recent decision to permit the use of MDMA and psilocybin in specific medicinal situations. The world's first nation to formally recognize psychedelics as medicines was Australia.

"You can provide a bit more guidance and a bit more surety to people who are doing that," he says.

"It may not work, but at least the experience they have will have to meet some sort of minimum safety standards."

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