Alternate therapies like using leeches to cure frost-bites and other ailments have survived the change and modernity. Bilal Handoo offers glimpses how leech therapy is getting recognition owing to its various medical benefits
The old market of Hazratbal Srinagar from Telbal side is getting ready to host another Friday rush. Shopkeepers, hawkers and cart-pullers are showcasing their merchandise. In the vibrant market, Wali-ud-Din, 66, dressed in pheran is busy placing leeches on the right hand of a young lady. Sitting on a polythene sheet near the roadside, Din is one of the few traditional leech therapists who come to Hazratbal market every Friday with a bunch of worms in his pocket for treating people with different ailments.
The bone-chilling cold waves of January hardly bother the skinny leech-therapist from Batpora, on the outskirts of Srinagar. He flashes handkerchief full of worms out of his pocket. And randomly picks up a leech, and places it on the affected body part of a patient. Some leeches appear stubborn. They don’t feel for sucking ‘bad blood’. But Din knows the trick to put them back on task. He blows hot air from his mouth to activate them (leeches). After one or two unsuccessful attempts, worms stick to their basics.
Din has placed three leeches on the right swollen hand of Shaheena, a lady in her early-thirties. For three days, her bruise hit hand is in acute pain. She tried everything. From lotions to sprays, but her pain returns after a momentary relief. As her agony prolonged, her aged-father, Mohammad Hussain Khan took her to Hazratbal for the traditional treatment.
“Leech therapy has a Shifa [healing],” says Khan, an elder with a trimmed snow-white beard. Before he talks any further, he pulls over his pheran, bares his belly and shows an affected part of his body below the armpit to Din. “Put some leeches over there,” Khan instructs Din. Soon three leeches cling to his body. After a while, he begins speaking again.
“Do you know, leeches can heal many ailments of a person,” he says, flashing thoughtful expressions on his face. “Skin diseases, gout, back pain and many other ailments.”
After a while, Din separates leeches (one by one) from Shaheena’s hand and put them in a container. Leeches have swelled in size. Three pores left behind by leeches on Shaheena’s hand start oozing blood. She cleans her hand and is waiting for her father. Some fifteen minutes later, Din separates swollen leeches from Khan’s body. The father-daughter duo hands over Rs 300 to Din before preparing to leave. By placing a single leech on somebody’s skin, Din earns Rs 50.
The worm seems worth that amount. It isn’t a home-grown. Like Din, other traditional leech therapists of the valley place supply orders for worms from outside the valley. Some even fetch them from Pakistan.
“A single leech lasts till its fourth sucking,” says Din, putting another set of worms on a chilblain affected toes of a middle-aged man. “During winters many people prefer leech therapy to heal their frostbites, dry and cracked skin.”
While Din is slowly putting all his worms at the task, the market at the same time has peaked with trading activities. In the din of the market, Umar Sofi, 12, a Class 7 student looks calm and thoughtful. Hailing from Batpota like Din, Umar is the youngest leech therapist present in the market. Dressed in faded blue jeans and jacket, he carries a bunch of worms in his pocket wrapped in a thick piece of cloth.
“This [cloth] keeps them [leeches] warm,” says Umar while frequently wiping his running nose. His scarlet cheeks and wavering hands make one feel that he is feeling cold. “I seldom come here,” he continues. “Actually my grandfather is ill today and that’s why I am here.”
A son of a labourer, Umar is the eldest among three siblings. He has learned leech therapy from his grandfather.
He has set his gleaming eyes on the left leg of an elderly lady. A lady is apparently suffering from arthritis (bone ailment). He puts four leeches on her leg and puts a handkerchief over them.
“Apart from winters, we receive a huge rush of people after 10 Muharram, when Shia Muslims visit us in great numbers for leech therapy,” says Umar. “As many of them inflict injuries while mourning, leeches clear their skins as well as scars.”
But leech therapy isn’t a mere roadside healing touch only. Since it has a wide canvas of medical benefits to offer, it is being practised in many health centres in the valley.
In 2008, medicos started leech therapy in Homeopathic (Unani) hospitals in Kashmir. The aim was to treat heart problems, arthritis, gout, chronic headaches and sinusitis.
Dr Nasir Ahmad Hakeem, a noted medical practitioner who introduced leech therapy in three Unani hospitals five years ago in Kashmir, says leech has more than 100 bio-active substances in its saliva. “These substances eventually go into the body of a patient while it sucks the patient’s blood,” says Dr Hakeem.
He believes gynaecological [female] disorders will also benefit greatly from leech therapy. “Skin diseases like psoriasis, herpes, and eczema can also be treated with leech therapy,” Dr Hakeem continues. “Other problems known to benefit from leech therapy are the eyes (example is glaucoma) and the brain (for infantile cerebral palsy).”
But scores of medicos practising allopathic (conventional) medicine don’t seem pleased with leech therapy.
“Leech therapy isn’t feasible to all,” says Dr Rouf Zargar, as Srinagar based physician specialist. “It can’t be prescribed to patients with HIV and AIDS. Leech therapy puts these patients at risk for bacterial sepsis, thus, worsening their conditions.”
But Dr Hakeem has an answer up his sleeves for the concern reflected by Dr Rouf.
“You see, once a leech is used on a human, it is then killed as part of the measures to prevent it passing on infection from one patient to another,” Dr Hakeem says. “So, it leaves no room for speculation that leech therapy aids infection.”
However, Dr Abdul Waheed, a prominent medico of the valley says fresh research on leech therapy is going on, “but as of yet, there is not a strong case for its use.”
However, the available medical researches done so far on leeches reflect more of its positives than negatives. Medical researchers at Unani medicine hospital in Srinagar’s Habak area say, their research has found that the saliva of leeches (rich in bio-active substances) creates positive effects in the patient’s body.
“Since they [leeches] release anticoagulation agents [a blood thinning substances] into the bloodstream of the patient, the blood becomes thinner, allowing it to flow freely through the vessels,” says Dr Farooz Dar, 34, a medicinal researcher. “The anti-clotting agents also dissolve clots found in the vessels, eliminating the risk of them travelling to other parts of the body and blocking an artery or vein.”
Dr Dar says patients who suffer from pain and inflammation will feel relief from the anti-inflammatory and anaesthetic effects of the leech’s saliva.
“In the long run, leech therapy also helps to normalize the blood pressure of hypertensive individuals as well as lessen their risk of suffering from stroke and heart attacks,” says Dr Altaf, a noted homoeopathic medico of old Srinagar. “Blood circulation is also improved with leech therapy and it helps with the healing process of wounds, as well as wounds and lesions caused by diabetes.”
Back to the busy old market of Hazratbal, Umar is now separating swollen leeches from the leg of an elderly lady. After wiping the bleeding from her leg, Umar receives Rs 200 from her, besides blessings. As a lady exits, a young girl (apparently below 10) walks in gingerly and sits near leech therapist, a kid himself.
Umar takes a good look at her frostbite-ridden foot. After a while, he takes out a bunch of worms wrapped in a piece of cloth from his pocket.
And thus, begins another therapy…