Whether eating jackal meat to treat the common cold or eating female wolf genitalia to boost fertility -- the unconventional is becoming conventional medicine in parts of Tajikistan.
For Nazirjon Nazirov, the prospect of spending six months undergoing treatment for tuberculosis (TB) at a hospital in southern Khatlon Province led him to a purportedly quicker alternative: porcupine meat.
"When you're sick, you desperately want to be healthy again," Nazirov says. "You follow almost any advice you hear, hoping it will quickly bring your health back. A healer told me to take porcupine meat, and I've paid local hunters to find me some."
Such accounts baffle doctors like Rahmatullo Juraev, who heads the TB hospital in the regional capital, Kulob.
"We tell our patients that porcupine meat does not treat tuberculosis, and that a shortcut for treatment doesn't exist for this disease," Juraev says. But despite the warnings, he admits, it is not uncommon for TB patients discouraged by the lengthy treatment process to seek their own cures.
Husein Rahmonov, deputy head of the Dushanbe-based National Center for Heart Disease, agrees. Unconventional treatments are especially popular among patients suffering from depression, insomnia, infertility, and chronic pain, he says, "But sometimes patients with more acute health problems also turn to healers."
The consequences can be dire, as in cases of treatable patients wasting valuable time and seeking the advice of a medical doctor only after it's too late; or they can be less conspicuous, such as when populations of abundant local animals are affected.
In some areas of Tajikistan's Kulob region, known for high TB infection rates, for example, porcupine meat is in such high demand on the black market that at 40 somonis ($8) a kilogram, it costs nearly twice that of a decent cut of beef.
The going price for the sex organ of a female wolf is more difficult to determine, but there is at least some demand.
Help is on the way
Doctors at a local hospital in Khatlon Province's southern Muminobod district recently treated a husband and wife who were admitted with near-fatal food poisoning after allegedly eating wolf vagina.
Doctors at the hospital won't discuss details, citing doctor-patient confidentiality. But a relative of the couple who gives only her first name, Dastagul, says the two became severely ill after consuming the wolf genitalia in a bid to cure infertility.
They did so on a healer's advice, according to Dastagul, who blames the decision on the couple's ignorance and their desperation to have a child.
Health care is free in Tajikistan, and there is no shortage of medical doctors, clinics, or hospitals, even in rural areas. "We're now better equipped with modern diagnostic and treatment facilities, so it is surprising to see the rise in so-called alternative treatments," says Dr. Rahmonov.
But widespread allegations of corruption and bribery among medical workers could be contributing to the problem.
"Free health care is a myth; it's common knowledge that patients have to pay lots of money to get decent treatment," says Davlatmurod Jumaev, a Dushanbe-based expert on social issues. "It's almost like a fixed price, and there is no way out of this."
"If you go to a healer or mullah, you can pay them what you want, Jumaev says, citing a figure of from one to three somonis ($0.20-0.60). "But if you go to doctors, they charge you at least five somonis just for writing a prescription, before even starting treatment. Medicines, too, are very expensive, and patients can't afford to buy even half of the prescribed medicines."
Jumaev says underfunded rural hospitals, which get a few hours of electricity a day and lack modern sewage systems, further sully the medical profession's reputation.
A new opinion poll being conducted by Tajikistan's National Center for Heart Disease could shed some more light on the question of why patients would forego medical treatment in favor of folk remedies.
TB patient Nazirov apparently feels it is a risk worth taking. "I am giving it a go," he says, as he waits for the porcupine meat to take effect.
RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent in Kulob Mumin Ahmadi contributed to this report