A large population in India still believes that getting bitten by a dog leads to the birth of puppies inside human body. Medical experts say witch doctors are at the root of the bizarre myth.
When 18-year-old Shankari Mahato was bit by a dog in her village in West Midnapur district in the state of West Bengal last month, instead of going to a regular doctor, she went to a witch doctor in a neighbouring village.
The 70-year-old witch doctor Buddheswar Singh had the girl swallow some mysterious herbs mixed with yogurt and flattened rice, and assured her that she would not face any health complications due to the dog bite.
The 18-year-old girl said she went to the witch doctor because she knew his medicine would save her life.
"We know that if people are bit by dogs, puppies will be born inside their stomach. That leads to rabies and eventually death," she told DW. "The medicine the witch doctor gave me cured me completely."
Malati Mahato, Shankari's illiterate mother, said that she too had taken Mr. Singh's medicine after getting bitten by a dog 8 years ago and she was cured.
"In our village whenever someone gets bitten by a dog, the person is usually taken to Mr. Singh for treatment. We don't go to hospital or regular doctors. His medicine is life-saving," Malati told DW.
The belief in the so-called "puppy pregnancy syndrome" (PPS) is prevalent among tens of thousands of people in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and some other Indian states.
Psychiatrist Kumar Kanti Ghosh, who has researched PPS for almost two decades and helped document the phenomenon for an article in the medical journal Lancet in 2003, said a mass hysteria or group delusion was behind the superstitious belief of puppy pregnancy among illiterate or near-illiterate people.
"At our hospital we came across cases where bite victims and their relatives said they believed puppies had been born inside their stomachs following the bite. Our doctors examined the patients and found that they had no organic disease resulting from the bites," said Dr. Ghosh, who heads the psychiatry department of Malda Government Hospital.
"The cases were then referred to my psychiatric department for treatment."
'Fool-proof' rabies cure
Buddheswar Singh, who never had any formal schooling, said the puppies were born inside the abdomen usually 1 or 2 weeks after a dog bite.
"As the puppies keep moving inside, the man too keeps running around restlessly. He sees images of the puppies when he looks at water. He runs around and yells like a mad dog ... and finally he dies," Singh told DW.
"If I get the patient within 7 days after the bite, the medicine, which is taken orally, will prevent the puppies from being born and thus save the patient's life."
Singh said that his medicine could also kill puppies that were up to three days old inside the human body.
"My medicine can also kill puppies that were just born. Bits of their carcasses then pass out through urine and stool, without the knowledge of the patient," he explained.
His father had passed him the secrets of this medicine when he was 20. He said that of the over 600 patients he treated for such bites, none of them had died as a result of a bite.
In West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and some other Indian states, there are thousands of witch doctors, also referred to as "faith healers," who, like Singh, claim that their medicine can indeed cure rabies.
Dr. Nitai Kishore Marik, former district medical officer of West Midnapur, explained that none of the cases in which the healers had boasted to cure rabies had actually been real cases of rabies.
"Very few dogs are found infected with rabies so it is not very likely that a person will contract the disease following a bite. That's why faith healers are able to fool people into thinking they have been cured."
He explained the witch doctors had come up with such stories to hold sway over uneducated people. In some instances, however, Marik noted that patients had not been able to be saved because they had wasted time going to healers first.
"I have seen scores of cases of rabies that reached our hospitals very late because of the intervention of faith healers. We could not save those lives."
Shanti Tudu, another traditional healer in the neighbouring Bankura district, explained his take on such instances:
"If you take my medicine and then go to hospital for treatment, my medicine will not work and the situation will worsen. In such an event, not even the hospital doctors can save you from death."