For thousands of health-seeking pilgrims, hope lies a 60-kilometre drive north of Kabul with homeopathic legend Mohammad Shirzad, purveyor of arachnid and reptile venom-based concoctions famed for curing vitiligo.
“He is a gift of God for the people of Parwan,” enthuses an old man encountered at the foot of the hill where the self-styled doctor’s clinic and home are located.
Shirzad lives on the edge of the quiet city of Charikar, vineyards snaking up the steep slopes towards his domain. As visitors reach the summit, they are greeted by verses of the Holy Quran inscribed on his door.
It is from here that he claims to have cured thousands of patients of the skin pigmentation ailment, using only homeopathic cures and creams derived from mainly scorpion but also cobra venom to eradicate blotches of discolouration.
Shirzad, a short, gently balding man with a grey moustache, appears in a white coat and ushers in visitors. Rich scents of nature outside are quickly supplanted by a pungent miasma of medical potions inside the premises.
“The mix is seventeen per cent poison and the rest is organic medicine made out of homeopathic plants,” says Shirzad, cutting to the chase about the ingredients used in his preparations. Seated at his desk, he tells how he developed the formulas on the basis of his 30 years of work at a serum-producing company in Iran.
“I received training from a German professor before the Islamic Revolution,” he goes on. “I studied how to make medications and I managed to make some for vitiligo from snake and scorpion venom.”
“The mix is seventeen per cent poison and the rest is organic,” says Shirzad.
The doctor’s patients receive treatment for just under a year, starting with a special forty-day diet, followed by a prescription of ointments. Sufferers of the condition come from as far as Germany, the UK and the US and pay 18 dollars for a consultation. Subsequent prescriptions cost around 100 dollars a month.
Shirzad says he has seen over 6,000 patients, including citizens of 36 countries, and that he cured 1,500 of them. If true, it is a feat indeed, since vitiligo, also known as leucodermia, continues to baffle western specialists.
Striking at any age and more prevalent in women, it is believed to be a psychosomatic condition, occuring when melanocytes, the cells responsible for skin pigmentation, die or are unable to function. Anxiety and alienation only worsen outbreaks of its white mark symptoms..
Prejudice towards sufferers
Patonee, a 13-year-old Afghan girl, has suffered from the condition for the last eight years. Her face and feet are full of such blemishes. The girl’s parents first took her to dozens of dermatologists, paying exorbitant prices, yet none of the prescribed medicines worked.
A typical affliction by vitiligo, which dermatologists say is more prevalent in women. (Photo: Sadat)
A family friend then referred Patonee to Shirzad, who has been treating the teenager for the last eight months. The marks on her body have since decreased by forty per cent, she says.
“The worst thing is the stigma,” Patonee said. “People wrongly believe that vitiligo is contagious. They are scared to shake hands with me or eat from the same plate.”
Shirzad believes overexposure to sunlight, bathing in stagnant water; anxiety and poor diet are the primary causes. Symptoms include constipation, baldness, white marks, esophagus pains and further anxiety.
Rozee Khan, another of his patients, says he developed vitiligo while working as a stonecutter in Iran. But the venom and herb concoction brewed by Shirzad is helping, he says.
During a 40-day prescribed diet, patients are barred from eating pepper, roasted food, beans, peas, cheese, cake, and exposing themselves to the sunlight. They must also quit smoking. But for treatment to be effective, the clinic needs a plentiful supply of venom donors.
A buck per stinger
Kill or cure. Venom from deadly scorpions is integral to the healing ointments prescribed to Shirzad’s patients
Shirzad usually has 1,600 scorpions to work with, keeping his stocks replenished by paying a dollar for each specimen locals bring to him in the summer, when the creatures are in plentiful supply. This year, however, the cold winter killed off his stocks entirely.
“There are over 2,600 types of scorpion in the world,” Shirzad said. “But I have none left – I will have to put an ad on Parwan TV.”
Unrecognized, say health authorities
Meanwhile, state-registered dermatologists like Fazel Ahmad Aatefi are scathing about homeopathic alternatives to conventional medication. “Treating vitiligo with scorpion poison is deceiving the people who have it and the many who so far referred [to Shirzad],” Aatefi said.
Officials at the Ministry of Health are also sceptical, noting that over 200 “unqualified doctors” operate across Afghanistan without having passed any ministry exams.
“I have never heard of an Afghan doctor who can cure vitiligo with scorpions,” said ministry spokesman Ghulam Sakhi Kargar. “However, the Ministry of Health’s certificate is open for all to sit.”
Despite being unknown to the Health Ministry, Shirzad’s waiting room is always full of patients. (Photo: Sadat)
Shirzad clearly feels the certification offered by the ministry has little bearing on his qualification to practice or his results.
“I have been working in Afghanistan more than ten years, I am very popular both nationally and internationally,” he says. “No one ever visited me from the Health Ministry asking for certificates or where I studied, and nor did I ever go to them.”
Qualified or not, he has plenty of positive patient testimonies to back him up, as well as a solid fan base in the local community: “If anyone is ever stung by a scorpion in Parwan then Doctor Shirzad is where you go,” adds the old man on the slope under the clinc.
And in a country that according to the World Health Organization has just two physicians for every 10,000 people, such a gift can only be appreciated