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.
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.
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 Facebook 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.
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.