Many collectors are struck by altitude sickness and some have even lost their lives

Fungi: The yartsa goenbub (Cordyceps sinensis) may be fetching prices many cannot fathom, but the risk associated with its collection is taking toll on farmers in the highlands.

High on the risk list is altitude sickness that is claiming lives, if not causing financial loss to collectors.  About a week ago, 25 cordyceps collectors carried a young woman collector from Gangkarpuensum back to her village, Kharsa in Bumthang, after she was hit by altitude sickness.

On June 16 a young man from Bumthang also trekked back from Gangkarpuensum before his health condition worsened.

“Every year scores of collectors return home or are carried by friends and relatives, either with altitude sickness or other illnesses,” Chokhortoe tshogpa, Sonam Jamtsho said.

But not every collector suffering from altitude sickness is lucky enough to climb or be carried downhill.

In the absence of prompt medical attention, a woman in her early 20s from Sephu, Wangduephodrang succumbed to altitude sickness earlier this month.  A 30-year-old university graduate from Wangdicholing also died from the same sickness in Gangkarpuensum.  Both died on the way to the hospital.

With the recent deaths, six cordyceps collectors have died in the mountains since 2006, when the first permit to collect cordyceps was issued.  Altitude sickness is suspected to be the cause of most deaths.

Chokhor mangmi, Tashi Wangdi, said that four collectors have died before the recent deaths because of the long treacherous journey back home.

“Even the one, who died from a fall in Chacha earlier this month, was suspected to have fallen after being attacked by altitude sickness,” Tashi Wangdi said.

Although only one death was reported in Wangduephodrang, many of the 1,280 collectors returned with altitude sickness.  Gasa however has no records of deaths.  There are more than 600 collectors in Gasa.

The collectors expressed the need to have health officials deployed during the month-long collection period.  All the cordyceps collection areas in Bumthang, Wangduephodrang and Gasa are at least one-eight days walk from the nearest health centres.

“Even the collectors, who were medically declared fit to hit the mountains, are returning sick from altitude sickness,” Tashi Wangdi said.

Wangdicholing general hospital chief medical officer, Dr Chador, acknowledged the vulnerability to suffer from altitude sickness despite undergoing medical fitness.

“Even those who didn’t suffer from high risk doesn’t mean they won’t be caught by mountain sickness once in the high altitude,” Dr Chador said.

Doctors advise those suffering from hypertension and diabetes to refrain from going to higher altitude.  Dr Chador said deaths from mountain sickness, however, are preventable with awareness, screening, acclimatisation and medication.

“The most simply effective and life saving measure to prevent mountain sickness death is rapid descending,” Dr Chador said.  He also advised gradual ascending than just trying to cover two days journey in one day to reduce probabilities of altitude sickness.

Dr Chador also advised the formation of a system amongst collectors to carry the sick back to the hospital to prevent loss of lives.

“They can also buy the Gamow bag, which is used to reduce the altitude sickness symptoms by putting the person in the pressure bag,” Dr Chador said.

Sonam Jamtsho said the issue was raised in a gewog tshogdu once, but it was turned down because of shortage of medical personnel and budget constraints. “Health officials need not have to camp with the cordyceps collectors in the places of collection. The officials could be stationed at close proximity to every collection areas,” he said.

For instance, the health official can operate from Lamdrang to tend collectors of Dhur.

“Likewise, for Chokhortoe, the medical outpost can be based in Tsamba and Gomthang, which is about two hours walk from the nearest collection areas,” Sonam Jamtsho said.

Tashi Wangdi also said that stationing medical official would save the collectors from huge expenses incurred while returning home for medication.

“Losses are even bigger for those collectors, who return home without much collection and cannot go back to the mountains,” Tashi Wangdi.

Every year each collector invests Nu 15,000-20,000 for cordyceps collection trip in buying ration, tents, trekking gear and ponies.

Dzongkhag health officer, Kinga Gyeltshen, said no health officials could be deployed, because of shortage of health personnel even in basic health units, and budget constraints to cover travel and daily subsistence allowances.

“Collectors are given medical advises and medicines from the health centres every year,” Kinga Gyeltshen said.

Tempa Wangdi &  Dawa Gyelmo