Three-year-old Maryam cannot speak coherently, nor can she stand properly yet. Like any tender soul of her age, she mumbles and fumbles along, giving joy to her family. But until some months ago, she had nursed excruciating pain. She was diagnosed with a serious heart ailment. So her father Sahil Amanzada, a small-time businessman in western Herat province, flew her to India for treatment.

Maryam was successfully operated on at Escorts Heart Institute in south Delhi, after her father managed to put together the money needed for surgery. A few weeks later, she returned home healthy. “It was difficult to see our first child go through so much pain, but she somehow pulled through and we are relieved now,” said Amanzada, with a wide smile.

Amanzada chose Delhi for treatment because he did not want to take a chance with hospitals and doctors in Afghanistan. “I was not ready to put my child’s life at risk by taking her to some local hospital here. I was certain they will do a great job.”

India has become the preferred choice for many Afghans seeking advanced treatment for various health issues. As a consequence, the hospitals in Delhi see a tremendous rush of Afghan patients, contributing greatly to the medical tourism in India.

Inexpensive accommodation

According to a study by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, medical tourism has flourished in Asian countries like India because of “low costs and shorter waiting lists for elective surgery”. Dr KK Aggarwal, senior consultant at Moolchand Hospital in Delhi, concurred: “In India, healthcare is cheaper and on a par with anywhere else in the west, and that brings patients from other countries here, especially Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq and African countries.”

Most patients from Afghanistan rent apartments in small localities of south Delhi like Lajpat Nagar, Malviya Nagar and Bhogal, which are close to premier hospitals like Apollo Hospital, Max Hospital, AIIMS and Moolchand Hospital. Mohammad Gulnawaz, who underwent a critical surgery for brain tumour at Max Hospital, rented an apartment for a month in Malviya Nagar. “It was at walking distance from the hospital and not very expensive,” said Gulnawaz. “There are also some nice Afghan food outlets in the locality and in front of the hospital.”

Mujeeb ur Rehman, 55, damaged his left leg last year in a mine blast while coming to Kabul from Kunar. Doctors in Kabul advised him to go to India or Pakistan for surgery. “I decided to go to India though it was a little more expensive than Pakistan,” said Rehman, sporting a colourful headgear. “After an initial surgical procedure, doctors at Apollo Hospital decided to amputate the leg as the infection was chronic.”

Ahmad Saeedi, a Master’s student at Delhi University, works as a translator with these patients. He says the rush of patients has been steady since 2003. “Most patients come with heart ailments, brain tumours, orthopaedic problems and cancer,” Saeedi said over telephone from Delhi. “India offers many facilities to these patients from Afghanistan with hassle-free visas and security, unlike Pakistan and Iran.”

Win-win situation

As per industry figures, more than 10 lakh foreign patients visited India this year, and a large number of them were from Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the reports about post-surgery superbugs in many hospitals of India, the rush of patients has not reduced. “Patients who came over the last few years have achieved good results and are now referring their friends and relatives,” said Dr Yash Gulati, senior consultant at Apollo Hospital in Delhi. He makes special mention of Afghan patients. “Most of my foreign patients are from Afghanistan and they always go back happy and healthy.”

According to the Indian Embassy in Kabul, more than 100,000 medical visas have been issued in the last three years. “Most of the visa applications are for medical purposes, which shows Indian hospitals are the preferred choice for Afghan patients,” said an embassy official, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. Fereshta Jameel, a student at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, says it is a win-win situation for both Indian and Afghanistan. “It gives a boost to medical tourism in India and helps Afghans get the best medical treatment at an affordable price.”

Dr Anoop Misra, director of the Centre for Internal Medicine at Fortis Hospital in Delhi, believes the quality of healthcare in some Indian hospitals is better than in other medical tourism destinations. “All the latest procedures, support facilities and drugs are available,” he said. “Further, costs here are nearly a fifth of that in the USA, and translators are available here for languages spoken in Afghanistan, Middle East and Africa. Lodging and food during treatment is also at nominal rates.”

“I needed hip replacement surgery and India was my first choice,” said Shafi Nasiri, a resident of Kabul. He underwent surgery at Apollo Hospitals in 2012 and now is able to walk and run like before. “Although healthcare industry in Afghanistan has significantly improved in the last one decade, but you still cannot undergo complex surgical procedures here.”

Traditional medicine

Medical procedures that generally bring foreign patients to India include bypass cardiac interventions, neurosurgeries, orthopaedic surgeries, hip replacement, plastic surgery, infertility treatment, and dental implants. These procedures, according to a Health Digital Systems report, cost half as much in India than in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe.

“I attended a conference in Canada recently where a doctor from the US said that bronchial asthma treatment is the fifth most expensive treatment there,” said Dr Param Hans Mishra, dean cum administrator of the Indian Spinal Injury Centre. “I was astonished because in India it costs just a few thousands of rupees.” Most Afghan patients, says Dr Mishra, go to India for the treatment of diabetes, heart diseases and kidney failure.

Many medical tourists, especially from Afghanistan and Middle East, are equally fascinated by the traditional and natural medicine as by modern medicine. Ayurveda, unani medicine and yoga are also popular with medical tourists.

Maryam’s parents are happy today. “It would be wonderful to have such state-of-the-art hospitals and professionals here because not everyone can afford treatment outside the country,” said Amanzada. “Till we have such facilities of our own, I hope Indian hospitals and doctors continue to provide ethical and updated medical care to us.”

This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared in Afghan Zariza.