Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008 12:55 UK

Kashmir hospitals using leeches

By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar

man being treated with leeches in Kashmir
The leeches are described as 'wonder doctors'

Hospitals in Indian-administered Kashmir have started using leeches to suck blood out of patients as part of their treatment.

Doctors in three hospitals are using leeches to treat heart problems and conditions such as arthritis, gout, chronic headaches and sinusitis.

Patients who have not been cured using conventional medicine are the most likely to want to try using leeches.

The doctor heading the programme says there have been some "amazing results".

Leeches were widely used in medicine until the end of the 19th century.

Cautiously optimistic

The Kashmir hospitals using leeches follow the traditional unani system of medicine that originated in ancient Greece and is recognised by the Indian health authorities.

A patient at the unani hospital in Sopore town, Abdul Razak Mir, says he has suffered from a chronic headache and bad cold for two decades, which has recently affected his eyes.

man being treated with leeches in Kashmir
Traditional workers are being used to apply the leeches

"Allopathic (conventional) medicines have failed to cure me," he says. "I am hopeful that the leech therapy will help me."

Abdul Rashid Bhat has had a skin disease for three years. "I have been to many doctors but have had no relief. Now I have come for leech therapy. I hope I will be cured. People have told me it helps."

An orthopaedic patient, Ghulam Hassan, is also cautiously optimistic:

"I have been on medicine and have also had physiotherapy but to no avail. Now I am trying the leech therapy. Maybe my pain goes. I cannot say anything yet."

Dr Nasir Ahmed Hakeem heads the three hospitals. He says he has used leeches on at least 200 patients in the past year.

He describes the leech as a "wonder doctor" and a "medicine factory which makes numerous enzymes".

According to Dr Hakeem, there are more than 100 bio-active substances in the saliva of a leech which go into the body of a patient while it sucks the patient's blood.

Unani colleges do not train people in leech treatment, so Dr Hakeem has taken on traditional workers to apply the leeches to his patients.

Once a leech is used on a human it is then killed as part of the measures to prevent it passing on an infection from one patient to another.

Dr Hakeem has drawn a lot of criticism from the allopathic, or medical mainstream, community.

But he claims now that "some allopathic doctors are among my patients" after being convinced of research showing the effectiveness of using leeches.

'Not a strong case'

He cites the example of allopathic doctors using maggots to treat 'diabetic foot' (feet problems that develop in diabetic patients).

The maggot, he says, eats the rotten tissue in the foot but not the healthy tissue.

Dr Abdul Waheed Banday, former head of the department of medicine in Srinagar's Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, says that there is renewed interest in leech therapy in the West.

He says that although leech treatment is affordable for the poor, he does not expect its use in allopathic hospitals in the near future: "Fresh research on leech therapy is going on, but as of yet, there is not a strong case for its use."

But Dr Nasir Hakeem remains hopeful.

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