World News

Fake Doctor in India Suspected of Infecting Dozens with HIV

Posted February 6, 2018 3:11 p.m. EST

NEW DELHI — Police officials in northern India were searching on Tuesday for a fake doctor suspected of infecting dozens of his patients with HIV by reusing a dirty syringe.

The patients were treated by what is known as a “jhola chaap doctor,” a wandering medical practitioner whose only verifiable qualification (a chaap is a trademark or official seal) is a jhola, the cotton shoulder bag from which they dispense treatments.

Most are untrained, and some of the cures they offer can be dangerous, but in India, where the health care system is tremendously challenged, many poor people often feel they have no choice but to pay a few rupees for a jhola chaap doctor.

In this case, health officials in Unnao, a primarily rural district two hours’ drive southwest of Lucknow, became concerned last July when an unusual number of patients visiting a government hospital began testing positive in routine HIV screening.

Medical officials in Unnao said that they had then tested hundreds of people who lived in the same areas as these HIV-positive patients, including those who seemed perfectly healthy.

At least 33, they found, tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. All of those who tested positive said they had been treated by the same unqualified medical practitioner.

Police officers in the Unnao area are now looking for a jhola chaap doctor in his mid 40s who rides a bicycle, often sits on a platform in the middle of villages and offers dubious cures. If arrested, police officials said, he is likely to face charges including spreading dangerous disease, impersonating a doctor and practicing medicine without a license.

According to medical officials, he told many of his patients that an injection would make them feel better, and the patients said he kept reusing the same syringe without cleaning it.

Government health officials are offering free HIV treatment to all the people who were infected.

Mohan Rao, the head of the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the prevalence of jhola chaap doctors was a result of India’s overburdened medical system.

“Desperate people find desperate ways to get health care,'’ he said. “It’s a failure of Indian society, a failure of Indian politics. We spend the lowest on public health care in the world.'’

India’s government spent 1.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on health care in 2014, according to the World Bank. China, by contrast, spent 3.1 percent of its GDP on health care that year, and the United States 8.3 percent.

The government said this month that it would offer free health care to half a billion poor Indians, but many details of the plan have yet to be finalized.

A lengthy page on an Indian consumer complaints website describes dozens of encounters with jhola chaap doctors across India, with bilked patients denouncing “bogus” practitioners who “play with innocent people’s lives.”

The Delhi Medical Council, a government oversight body, estimates that fake doctors in Delhi outnumber the qualified and registered ones.