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Kyrgystan: Faith Healers Under Attack

Kyrgyz doctors are concerned at the resurgence of traditional healers.
By Natalya Domagalskaya

A local healer took 12-year-old Asylbek's broken leg and bound it tightly to a home-made splint.


Sadly, when the boy's grandmother chose to consult a traditional healer in her village in the south of Kyrgyzstan rather than a modern doctor it proved to be a terrible mistake.


A few days later the boy was rushed to hospital in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, where doctors amputed the now gangrenous leg.


Asylbek's grandmother paid the unlicensed healer 150 soms, about 3.50 US dollars, for his improvised remedy - a fraction of what it would have cost her to have the boy's playground injury seen to in a hospital.


Although the Bishkek doctors battled to save the leg, it was too late - the village healer's bandage had done too much damage. Wrapped tightly around the fracture, it had caused permanent injury to nerves and blood vessels.


The decision to consult a traditional Kyrgyz healer is an increasingly common one. Asylbek's grandmother made the choice because there was no doctor in her village. Many other people simply cannot afford to go to modern hospitals. Although healthcare is technically free, patients have to pay for medicines and other services. For people in remote rural areas, even getting to a hospital can be expensive.


The mother of six-year-old Vitalik Koshelev took him to hospital in Bishkek despite these costs.


"What about the medicine that they don't have in the ward? Or the daily delivery of food and other supplies? Of course it would be easier and cheaper to keep him at home, but we decided not to economise on our son's health," she told IWPR.


Other people distrust Kyrgyz doctors, and fear that they will diagnose problems and recommend operations simply to boost their own income.


Doctors interviewed by IWPR expressed outrage at this suggestion. They are concerned that the treatment of children's injuries by unqualified doctors has assumed dangerous proportions.


Talant Omurbekov, the head doctor at a Bishkek children's hospital, reels off a shocking set of statistics on the damage done by traditional healers. Last year 28 children were admitted to his hospital for bone injuries which were originally treated by folk healers, only to get much worse.


"It's particularly a shame that 20 of these 28 patients would not have had to be operated on by doctors if it had not been for the quacks who injured their blood vessels, nerves and muscle tissues, and let the bones grow back incorrectly," said Omurbekov.


In the first three months of the year his hospital has already seen four more cases.


A typical case is that of 13-year-old Nazira Aiylchieva, whose fractured shoulder was mistaken by a folk healer for a dislocated arm. The healer pulled violently at her arm, causing the bones to knit together badly and leaving the limb shortened and bent.


The doctors who operated on her doubt they can rectify the problem completely. They say it is often harder to fix other people's mistakes than it is to treat the original injury.


"We remember the case of every child who has been crippled, because correcting the gross mistakes of others is a difficult, responsible job - especially when the 'material' is children's bones," said one of the doctors.


Although most cases involve children from rural families, Omurbekov says almost a third of the patients he treats for complications brought on by folk remedies live in the capital itself, where there is no shortage of medical care.


Traditional healers remain unconcerned. Although their activity is illegal, they have little fear of being prosecuted.


"I don't impose myself on anyone, people come to me themselves and they know I don't have a doctor's certificate," one healer told IWPR.


"Also," he said, "don't doctors make mistakes too?"


Natalia Domagalskaya is an independent journalist in Bishkek


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