Yet they’re the first port of call for sick patients, especially, but not only, in rural areas

Medical: About two months ago, Som Jemo, 81, started getting severe stomachache.  But instead of consulting a medical professional, she chose to be cut around her belly with a blade.

“It makes the pain go away and I feel a lot better,” she said, showing her stomach that has multiple scars. “We didn’t have doctors those days and we were treated either by the local healers or at home.”

After visiting the hospital, she was diagnosed with gallstones and is currently admitted at the Trashigang general hospital.

One in every 10 patients, who walk into the hospital every day, comes with similar scars and wounds left behind by the local healers.  Most of them are from rural places, although a fair number of urban dwellers also seek traditional healers for cure.

Health officials said the local healers usually used blades to make a cut on the skin and suck the blood out.  Some also bite into the skin of the patient.

“Other than the infection, local healing could transmit communicable diseases, like hepatitis A, B, C and even HIV,” Trashigang’s dzongkhag health officer (DHO) Tshewang Dorji said. “The transmission could be from one patient to another, or from the healer to a patient.”

The DHO said that, in the process of people seeking the services of a local healer, patients were getting delayed for medical treatment.

Recently, a young patient had to amputate his arm after a local healer first treated his fracture.  The healer had tightly wrapped bamboo sticks around the joint. “Because of the tight grip, blood circulation had stopped, and the patient had to eventually cut off his arm,” the DHO said.

In 2012, health officials conducted awareness programs in Khaling and Radhi, where traditional healers comprising local healers and shamans (pows/pams) were informed of safe practices.

Health officials said the presence of these healers, faith and convenience were key reasons why most villagers preferred them as their first contact in times of sickness.

Trashigang dungtsho, (physician), Tshewang Dorji, said almost 50 percent of the patients he sees have a history of seeing a traditional healer.

“It’s only after the local healing doesn’t work that people visit the hospitals,” he said. “By then, most cases would have become complicated.”

A few years ago, the dungtsho said, patients admitted at hospitals would be seen getting treatments from local healers within the hospital compound.  The practice was later restricted.

“Unless people completely understand the harmful effects of local healing, it will be difficult to control the practice,” he said.

Health minister, Tandin Wangchuk, said the issue of local healers has become a challenge for the ministry. “It’s not that we don’t want these people to practise their trade, but it’s a concern when there are negative implications on people’s health,” he said.

Meanwhile, every week, about three people visit 62-year old Gajey, who claims to have been healing people for the past 30 years.

“I ask my patients to come with blades and dispose it after using them, and I use specialised equipment with cups to suck the blood,” he said, adding that this ensured that there were no chances of diseases getting transmitted. “I’m getting old and want to stop the practice, but people won’t let me; they even come knocking on my door late in the night.”

Tshering Wangdi, Trashigang