Helpless in the face of dengue outbreak, people turn to alternative therapies without proven efficacy
Sonal Matharu | September 30, 2015 | New Delhi
Ram Prakash’s 16-year-old relative, Manoj Kumar, suffering from dengue had a platelet count of 16,000 when he was admitted to north Delhi’s Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar hospital. Within a day, the count dropped to 12,000. Panic-stricken family members, who had taken leave from their private jobs and had stationed themselves outside ward number 22 of the hospital (assigned to dengue patients), followed the advice of the families around them and went out in search of papaya leaves.
They managed to find one in a park nearby. “We know some people here who have had to pay around Rs 40-50 per leaf depending on its size. We were lucky,” said Dev Lal, one of the relatives of Kumar.
A day later, Kumar’s platelets, however, further dropped to 10,000. The family’s next option was goat milk. “We gave him goat milk today; the result will come tomorrow,” said Prakash.
Prakash bought a quarter cup of goat milk for Rs 300 from Mongolpuri, a slum five km away from the hospital. He wanted to believe that he was not being cheated. He saw some goats tied in an open field in the slum and when he asked for little milk, the owner brought a glass with just enough milk to be gulped in one go. “I never saw him milch the goat. But I hope they understand our situation and have not given us cow milk instead,” added Prakash.
The desperation gripping the city in wake of the dengue outbreak is apparent. With almost every second patient walking in is a fever case, hospitals have opened separate out-patient departments (OPDs) for all fever cases – and a majority of them test positive for dengue.
Semi-conscious patients are seen leaning on their relatives, waiting for their turn to see the doctor. “Every fifth patient is a serious case and requires admission,” says Dr Ashok Kumar, medical officer, medicine department at Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar hospital.
“The only medicines you can prescribe to patients are for fever, vomiting, gastric discomfort and stomach ache,” Kumar said. “If patients want to take any ayurvedic medicines alongside, we do not object to it. There is no scientific evidence of its efficacy,” he added.
Goat milk and pulp of crushed papaya leaves are believed to increase the blood platelet count in patients suffering from dengue. Though there are no large-scale studies published or clinical trials conducted to scientifically prove their effectiveness in curing dengue fever, in ayurveda, these substances are believed to possess many medicinal values.
“Goat milk is easy to digest and boosts immunity. In ayurveda, goat milk is especially given to elderly people or those with illnesses.
Carpaine, a major component found in papaya leaves, acts as a blood purifier and reduces swelling,” said Dr Madan Gopal Bajpai, president, Ayush Medical Association, an association of Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) doctors in India. Bajpai added that patients who are seeking treatment for dengue at various ayush hospitals are advised to take papaya leaves’ pulp and goat milk for speedy recovery.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by Nisar Ahmad from the faculty of biological sciences, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan, established the effective use of carica found in papaya leaves’ extract in treating dengue fever. In another paper, Dr Fadzilah Adibah Abdul Majid, head of cell culture engineering laboratory, University of Technology, Malaysia, states testimonies where the platelet of patients suffering from dengue fever immediately “rose after drinking the thick bitter juice of crushed fresh papaya leaves”. Majid adds that this is a traditional practice and it “works all the time”.
In 2013, another group of researchers from Malaysia conducted a controlled study on 228 patients with dengue and dengue haemorrhagic fever. Half the patients received the juice for three consecutive days and it was noted that in this group of patients platelet count increased significantly in both types of dengue fever.
A paper by the department of pharmaceutical technology, Meerut institute of engineering and technology, Uttar Pradesh, recommends goat milk for severe dengue cases. It states that goat milk contains Selenium (Se) which is one of the most essential micronutrients. Se has anti-clotting effects and act as enzymes that protect from cellular damage. It is also digested easily, the paper adds.
Jaswant Singh, a dairy farmer from Mongolpuri, vouches for this traditional knowledge. “Goat milk is like holy water,” he begins explaining. He believes that since goats can eat even poisonous plants, their milk has special qualities.
Since the dengue outbreak, he has witnessed goat milk sales in his locality skyrocketing. People from distant places from Delhi have also approached Singh. Like a smart businessman, he invested in a goat recently. He spent Rs 10,000 on buying a new one that has recently given birth. “People bring brides for less than Rs 10,000 from other states these days,” said Singh, without hiding his resentment about the high price of the animal.
He now has three goats and each one gives about three quarters or 750 ml milk every day. He sells a quarter for Rs 150. He feeds them well and has appointed a few youths in the block to guard the goat shelter throughout the day and night. With the price of goat milk rising to Rs 2,000 a litre, goats are priced assets these days.
Goat’s milk, he insists, gives strength. He himself suffered from dengue last month and so did his 10-year-old daughter and two sons, a 17-year old and a seven-year old. “All we spent was Rs 40 on fever medicines. We all consumed goat milk and within days, we were back on our feet,” said Singh.
His wife, who is feeling unwell for a few days now, has started the same therapy. The family fears she is next to fall ill. “I have never seen so many dengue cases occur in one season all my life,” adds Singh.
A few lanes away, Ashok Kumar, who also has one goat that has recently given birth to a calf, gives goat milk free to people. He bought goats simply because he likes animals and never thought of making money out of it. The rising demand of goat milk to cure dengue also could not lure him into making some quick bucks. “The goat doesn’t give more than half litre milk a day anyway,” he said. His mother, however, feels that this social service of theirs is the reason why God has mercy on them and none of the family members has had dengue yet.
Besides goat milk and papaya leaves, bel, neem leaves and coconut water are also said to increase the platelet count in blood. While neem and bel can be found anywhere, at road side and in public parks, the price of coconut water has not seen the kind of rise goat milk has seen. A coconut vendor near the hospital says the footfall definitely increases during the dengue season. But the price of coconut rises only marginally from Rs 30 to Rs 40 at this time of the year. The coconut that has only water is more effective in dengue, says Faizal Khan, a vendor. Papaya leaf extract tablets are also sold for Rs 1,000 for a packet of 100.
The hospital corridors, lined with coconut shells, indicate that all these alternative therapies are a big hit with people. Inside the dengue wards, one bed is shared by two or more patients – a scene common across government hospitals in Delhi. If the patient needs the doctor’s attention, the attendants have to go running around the wards looking for doctors and plead them to come to their beds just to have a look at their patient writhing in pain.
As the crippling health infrastructure in the city tries to control the outbreak, recent rain showers bring along the fear of the disease spreading. Goats, perhaps, are going to become more precious than brides and papaya trees will be left with no leaves.
(The story appears in the October 1-15, 2015 issue)
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