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Afghan Gov’t Warns Against Popular But Unproven Coronavirus Treatment

Hakeem Alakozai (R) talks with a an Afghan health ministry official in Kabul on May 30.
Hakeem Alakozai (R) talks with a an Afghan health ministry official in Kabul on May 30.

A controversy is growing in Afghanistan after a healer claimed he has found a cure for treating COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 370,000 people worldwide in the ongoing pandemic.

Relatives of patients and lawmakers are calling on the Afghan authorities to let them try the medicine that Hakeem Alakozai, a traditional Afghan healer, says can treat patients suffering from the disease.

But Afghan health authorities shut down his clinic in Kabul on May 31 and are warning people to refrain from using his unproven cure, which involves a syrup made from plant extracts. Alakozai has not disclosed the ingredients, but he practices Unani medicine, a system of alternative traditional medicine still popular across South Asia.

On June 1, scores of families of patients thronged outside the shuttered clinic in the capital, Kabul. Many had spent the night waiting in line.

“We want to request the government to let us use the medicine Hakeem sahib has prepared because there is no remedy for this disease anywhere,” Kabul resident Fahima told Radio Free Afghanistan while referring to Alakozai with the traditional title for respect.

“What is our fault in this?” she asked. “Why is the government not allowing us to get medicine from Hakeem sahib when it cannot provide a treatment or do anything [about this disease]?”

Mohammad Imran, another Kabul resident, claims that Alakozai’s medicine cured many members of his extended family. “More patients [among our relatives] have arrived from various provinces to get the treatment,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. Many from the countryside who are sick travel to cities to stay with their relatives as they seek treatment from doctors or traditional healers.

“The government should let us get this medicine so the rest of our guests can be treated,” Imran added.

Middle-aged Alakozai, who wears a colorful turban, moved to Kabul from his native Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city and capital of the province with the same name, after gaining rapid fame for treating COVID-19. He claims to have treated thousands, including senior government officials, with his medicine.

“The coronavirus is a mixture of old diseases such as cold, flu, cough, malaria, and typhoid,” he says in a YouTube video. “Unlike the past, all these diseases have united in attacking patients by the order of Allah to torment people.”

As the coronavirus infection rates rise in Afghanistan, Alakozai’s claims of a treatment have earned him some public support. The country of estimated 35 million people has so far recorded more than 15,700 cases amid a lack of widespread testing. At least 265 deaths are attributed to COVID-19, but the true extent of the pandemic is difficult to fathom because of the country’s fragmented healthcare system.

But the desperation of many Afghans in seeking a treatment for the disease indicates that the coronavirus is taking a heavy toll on the country reeling from more than four decades of war.

Lawmaker Sayed Ahmad Sailab, who represents Kandahar in the Afghan Parliament, said he hopes to be able to officially confirm or debunk the treatment’s viability.

Along with Sayed Jan Khakrezwal, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, he claims Alakozai’s treatment has helped thousands in recovering from the coronavirus infections.

“I support Alakozai’s efforts and will not rest until the Health Ministry either approves or refutes his treatment,” Sailab said.

But Afghan health authorities are not convinced. Wahid Majroh, a spokesman for Health Ministry, said people should not take the treatment when its effectiveness has not been confirmed.

“The responsibility we have to protect the health of Afghans binds us to not allow any individual or group to provide a medicine or treatment without it being approved by relevant national and international healthcare organizations,” he told journalists.

“Nowhere in the world are vaccines being made at home,” Majroh said in a pointed reference to Alakozai’s claims. “Even if a treatment is 100 percent effective as our brother claims, it still needs to be tested [and approved] by institutions linked to the Health Ministry and international healthcare organizations.”

Majroh said they will be quick to share Alakozai’s treatment if it proves effective in treating COVID-19.

“Until its effectiveness is proved, I request our educated and wise citizens to refrain from believing in rumors,” he said. “Don’t do anything that can result in flooding our hospitals with patients whose conditions have worsened because they drank a potion made from opium poppies,” he added, alluding to the possibility that Alakozai might be using opium extracts in his claimed treatment.

Since the emergence of the novel coronavirus in China in January, the world has been on a frantic search for a cure or prevention of the highly infectious virus. The World Health Organization is keen to note that so far there is no specific cure or vaccine available for COVID-19.

More than 100 vaccines candidates are being prepared globally with some of them in initial human trials. But health officials and scientists still warn that a vaccine might be months or even years away.

While Gilead Sciences' antiviral drug Remdesivir has been approved to be used as a potential treatment for COVID-19, the drug is still far from a proven treatment. It is still only available in limited quantities and is being administered at select hospitals.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Sultan Mohammad Sarwar and Nusrat Parsa.