In the incubator at the Nabarangpur district headquarter hospital’s special newborn care unit, a baby is branded and nasal catheters inserted into a his left nostril, Solomon Khara let out a long wail.
The pneumonia is “somewhat under control”, said Dr Balakrishna Rath. But that was the least of the paediatrician’s worries. Dr Rath was monitoring the multiple scald marks on the flimsy skin covering Solomon’s tummy.
“He would have died when his parents got him to the hospital. He had developed acute septicaemia. But more than that the scalding on his tummy would have killed him. We have to keep a close watch on him for next four days,” said Dr Rath.
On December 14, 17 days after he was born in Butipadar village of India’s poorest district, a local witch doctor Purusottam Ghasi, branded Solomon’s tummy with a hot iron nail as his belly bloated up. “The vein in his tummy became so prominent that I was scared and called the witch doctor. I thought I would lose my son,” said Solomon’s mother Renuka Kirsani, an anganwadi worker in the village.
As the newborn howled in pain, Kirsani said, Ghasi kept on branding the newborn with hot iron nails, secure in the belief that the infant would soon be on the path of recovery.
“It’s more like a rite of passage in Nabarangpur’s villages. Though there are problems in our healthcare system, people still trust the witch doctor for treating newborns. But I was shocked to hear that an Anganwadi worker had taken her child to a witch doctor,” said Dr Niranjan Nayak, chief district medical officer of Nabarangpur.
While district officials say they have launched awareness programmes to drive out such superstition, they face an uphill task given the challenges they face in providing a viable alternative. As The Indian Express reported on August 15, while launching a one-year assignment focussing on Nabarangpur, the healthcare system covering the district is badly hit by a shortage of doctors.
On Sunday, Dr Nayak admitted that the district headquarters was 19 short of the 30 sanctioned posts of doctors.
It’s no surprise then that villagers such as Kamala Bhatra in Butipadar continue to vouch for the healing power of the iron nail. “I had taken my grandson for branding, five days after he was born last year. He was vomitting. Eight days after the ‘lachela lok’ (witch doctor) branded him on his tummy, he was cured. Even I was branded by the ‘lachela lok’ in my childhood,” said Bhatra.