Afghan herbalist clinic closed over quack coronavirus ‘cure’

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Afghan authorities have grown deeply concerned as thousands of people flock to a traditional herbalist, or hakim, for a purported coronavirus cure made from a mixture of narcotics.

The clamour for the “secret medicine” being distributed by Haji Mohammad Alkozai, 62, comes as Afghanistan's Covid-19 outbreak accelerates, with nearly half of all tests returning positive and hospitals overstretched.

As of Monday there were 31,238 confirmed cases in Afghanistan, and 733 reported deaths from the virus, but medical experts believe figures could be higher due to a lack of testing materials and a decrepit medical infrastructure.

Amid panic over increasing cases, Afghans are turning to the traditional herbalist who claims three drops of his mixture provide instant relief from the symptoms of Covid-19, despite a health ministry analysis revealing it is comprised of opium derivatives, including morphine, papaverine and codeine.

“If someone is sick, they would obviously seek any cure they can find; they won’t care how much narcotics are in a medicine,” said Khushal Alizoy, 38, who works at an IT company in Kabul.

He turned to the hakim’s treatment when he and 23 other members of his family tested positive for Covid-19.

“It started with my brother, who might have got the virus from his office. Day after day, everyone else in my family started to show symptoms," Mr Alizoy told The National.

"We did not go to the hospitals because we did not want to spread the infection in the community,” he said.

Muslims wear protective masks and attend Friday prayers at a mosque, amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus, in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 20, 2020. Reuters

General view of the deserted Ghulam Haider Khan High school following Afghan authorities' orders to shut down schools for a month as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, in Kabul on March 19, 2020. AFP

A volunteer in a protective suit sprays disinfectant in the offices of a local police station to help curb the spread of coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 23, 2020. AP Photo

A volunteer in a protective suit sprays disinfectant on a police truck outside a local police station to help curb the spread of coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 23, 2020. AP Photo

A street vendor selling protective masks that could help curb the spread of the new coronvirus waits for customers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 23, 2020. AP Photo

A worker disinfects area around a police station during a volunteered campaign of disinfecting areas and distributing face mask with gloves to fight against coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 23, 2020. According to the ministry of health of Afghanistan at least one person has died and 44 others are confirmed to be infected with coronavirus in the country. EPA

An Afghan woman wearing a face mask sitting in a bus in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 23, 2020. EPA

Health workers screen people crossing into Afghanistan from Iran on March 22, 2020. EPA

Afghan men receive free rations distributed in Herat, Afghanistan, on March 24, 2020. EPA

Afghan women receive free rations distributed in Herat, Afghanistan, on March 24, 2020. EPA

People cross into Afghanistan from Iran on March 22, 2020. EPA

Afghan health workers measure the temperature of bus passengers in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, as they enter Kabul trough the city's western gate, on March 22, 2020. AP Photo

A health worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant outside of a building during an awareness campaign for coronavirus, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on March 19, 2020. Reuters

A Pakistani soldier stands guard at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as it remains closed due to coronavirus, in Chaman, Pakistan, on March 20, 2020. EPA

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Instead, the family put themselves under home quarantine and sought treatment from relatives who are doctors. They prescribed paracetamol but the family started the hakim’s medicine soon after, so they claim it’s not clear which helped them recover, but they believe it was most likely the hakim’s medicine.

Mr Alizoy first heard about Hakim Alkozai's medicine through social media. "I decided that if God has provided a cure in this, then let’s give it a try,” he said.

All members of the family, except one, say they have fully recovered from the virus and are now symptom-free, though they have not been able to get follow-up tests to confirm their recovery. “Only one of my brothers is still under quarantine but he is doing well too,” Mr Alizoy said.

Dr Akmal Samsor at the Ministry of Public Health warned the narcotic ingredients could pose a risk to health. “We found that the hakim’s medicine contains high amounts of morphine, cocaine and other narcotics … If these are used in combinations of three or more, it can cause addiction,” he warned.

Dr Salman Yunus, a neurosurgeon in a private hospital in Kabul also warned of the product’s potentially dangerous effects. “Hakim Alkozai’s claims are not based on randomised clinical trials for a vaccine or medication that has proved to be effective in humans,” he said. “The medication used contains opioids which can have serious adverse effects on the human body. The lack of awareness and the false perception that it can cure Covid-19 is harmful,” he warned.

Men prepare to spray disinfectant during the coronavirus outbreak in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 18, 2020. Reuters
Men prepare to spray disinfectant during the coronavirus outbreak in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 18, 2020. Reuters

Dr Yunus attributed the popularity of the hakim’s potion to the lack of a strong government response to the Covid-19 crisis. “The Ministry of Health failed to tackle the crisis in terms of creating management policies or awareness among the public,” he said.

“As a doctor treating Covid-19 patients, I have bad experiences with lack of diagnostics and facilities to treat patients. Even some highly suspected cases aren’t being entertained for PCR tests, and many patients have been refused treatment,” he said, adding that some of the coronavirus hospitals have turned people away due to lack of beds or limited resources.

As a result of this, Dr Yunus said he had lost colleagues and loved ones unable to access treatment in critical care facilities in hospitals.

Many Afghans who took the hakim’s medicine said it had no effect on their Covid-19 symptoms while some claimed their health deteriorated further as a result.

“The medicine had no positive impact on me,” Kamal Naser Osuli, a member of the Afghan parliament, wrote on his page. “The doctors I have been consulting told me that my condition has become worse after consuming the medicine,” he said, adding that doctors also told him many patients consuming Mr Alkozai’s medicines still succumbed to Covid-19.

Activists in Kabul distribute fliers with information about the coronavirus on March 16, 2020 as the number of confirmed cases in Afghanistan reached 21. AP Photo
Activists in Kabul distribute fliers with information about the coronavirus on March 16, 2020 as the number of confirmed cases in Afghanistan reached 21. AP Photo

The crowds of people lining up to take the hakim’s purported cure prompted the Health Ministry to try and close his clinic in Kabul on May 31. "Our plan is to increase people’s awareness about this particular medicine, what it is made of and how dangerous it can be,” Dr Samsor said.

But many of the medicine man's supporters took to the streets in protest, delaying the closure of his clinic.

Meanwhile, the hakim’s two other operations in Herat and Kandahar remain open, despite ministry efforts to have the Herat clinic shut down. “We are aware that he is operating in Herat, and we are investigating it. There is no official registered clinic that he can operate,” Dr Samsor said.

Limited access to medical facilities due to poor infrastructure and the country's long-running conflict, means Afghans often turn to traditional healers. However, Hakim Alkozai’s overnight rise to fame has left authorities and medical experts concerned.

Mr Alkozai is widely known in his home province of Kandahar as an herbalist and “doctor” of Unani (Greek) medicine. He owns a family-run operation and has been practicing herbal medicines for nearly 25 years. His claim to have found the cure – which he has tested on himself and his family – has spread his fame from Kandahar to the Afghan capital.

Despite the government’s attempt to shut him down, he continues to distribute the medicine free of charge with the help of local donors. Among his benefactors are numerous MPs and politicians, who see his work as religious and spiritual, including former President Hamid Karzai, who invited the hakim to his office in Kabul.

However, the hakim hasn’t revealed who funds his work.

After his 'miraculous' recovery, Mr Alizoy, too, believes the hakim’s effort are the work of the divine. “God is the one who cured me, after I took the medicine. If someone is infected like me, I would recommend they at least try his medicine once,” he said.

Updated: June 30, 2020 06:31 PM

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