CHARAKAR, Afghanistan – The hundreds of patients who flock to Mohammad Sherzad's homeopathic clinic in northern Afghanistan are greeted with a glass case of snakes and a covered glass dish of scorpions.
For decades, Sherzad has been extracting poison from snakes and scorpions, mixing it with natural herbs and using the concoctions to treat people ill with epilepsy and vitiligo, which causes white, depigmented patches on the skin.
Medical facilities are so scarce in this impoverished nation that many Afghans can't find doctors — the country has 1 doctor for every 10,000 people, according to the United Nations. Dozens of homeopathic doctors like Sherzad offer an alternative.
More than 1,800 patients are registered at Sherzad's home clinic in Charakar, the capital of Parwan province. Patients pay an initial fee of about $10 and leave with different capsules, powders and other forms of homeopathic medicines that cost roughly $20 to $30 a month.
Sherzad proudly shows visitors an album of before and after photos of his patients. One shows a young girl with white spots all over her feet. Another, taken later, shows the girl, smiling, her skin color returned to normal.
"I thank God today that this disease (vitiligo) can be cured in Afghanistan," said Sherzad, who never went to medical school, but has written more than 800 pages on the human body. "We can say to the world that we are now able to treat this disease."
Dr. Qasim Sayedi, who directs the health department in Parwan province, is skeptical that Sherzad's treatments really work. The Afghan government does not regulate homeopathic doctors, but does exert some informal oversight. The local health department has asked Sherzad, an Afghan returnee from Iran, to provide documents of his education.
"He had no documents except some video and photos from Iran, that showed him with snakes and scorpions," said Sayedi. Sayedi said he is giving Sherzad enough time to get proper documents, and that Sherzad has promised to go through all the legal steps needed to get a legal license.
Sherzad said his patients' experiences are evidence of his success.
Nelofer, a 21-year-old woman, took a nearly two-hour flight from Herat in western Afghanistan to Kabul and then a 90-minute trip from the Afghan capital to Parwan province to visit Sherzad. She said she had been suffering for nine years from vitiligo, which creates white patches on the hands, face and around the eyes, mouth and nostrils.
"I am hated because of having white spots on my hands," said Nelofer, who said she saw 20 skin experts in Afghanistan and Pakistan before seeking help at Sherzad's clinic.
Nelofer said that over the years the white spots grew larger on her hands and new ones appeared on her feet. She hates appearing in public for fear of being ostracized by others.
"That is bothering me more than anything else — that no one wants to eat with me at the same table," Nelofer said, crying.
In contrast, Nazira, a 34-year-old mother, shed tears of joy, saying that her 9-year-old daughter, who suffered from vitiligo for years, was getting better day by day after seeing Sherzad for the past few months. She says her daughter, Kawsar, no longer feels isolated from other children and plays with her classmates at school.
"I first saw the doctor in a TV show," Nazira said. "I was amazed with his work. Now my daughter is under his treatment."
She said she took her daughter to 10 skin specialists, but got only one answer: They could do nothing.
Extracting poison from a snake or scorpion is delicate, if not hazardous, work, but having done it for more than three decades Sherzad has developed a fondness for his creatures.
"I love them and that is the reason why I look after them," Sherzad said as a gray snake looped around his hand.
Sherzad laid a snake across his lap and squeezed venom from its mouth. He used a syringe to extract poison from the tips of his scorpions' tails, which curve over their backs. He then process the poison, purifies it to remove harmful substances and then mixes it with herbs found in the mountains.
One of his patients, 11-year-old Mohammad Shafiq, began suffering epilepsy-like seizures after falling from the roof of a house. The boy, dressed in a light blue Afghan traditional shulwar kumuz, saw many doctors and took several medications. Still, his condition didn't improve. He suffered five to six seizures a day. His mother, Sharifa Ahamdi, said that after being under Sherzad's care for two weeks, "life changed" for her son. He could walk and talk better and do a better job feeding himself.
"That was a good sign that his condition was improving," said Shafiq's mother, who was in Sherzad's office to pick up the treatment for the coming months. "You made our life change by treating my son."