A new, inexpensive therapy brings hope to autistic children

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By Nafisa Islam

Chamber of life Dr Mukherjee uses compressed room air instead of oxygen
Chamber of life Dr Mukherjee uses compressed room air instead of oxygen

TWO YEARS ago, Somantak Dutta, then aged five, needed help to get up. Afflicted with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder characterised by stiff muscles and uncontrollable contractions that lead to restrictions in body movement and intellect deficit — he didn’t know any other way to walk except with jerky movements and support.

His Kolkata-based parents, a government schoolteacher and a contractor, had lost all hope of recovery because the therapy available was too expensive for them.

Until Dr Arun Mukherjee — who has been treating children afflicted with the disorder for nine years — stepped in and introduced mild hyperbaric therapy, along with standard therapy that comprises physiotherapy, occupational teaching and special education.

The treatment was half as expensive as the prevalent high hyperbaric oxygen therapy, yet had the same results. Today, Somantak is in school, and doesn’t think twice before springing to his feet.

The more common high hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves keeping the patient inside a chamber filled with pure oxygen at higher than normal pressure. This results in higher supply of oxygen to the body. The process is slow, needing about 40 sessions to be effective, and costs about Rs. 1 lakh.

“However, my study shows that the same results can be achieved using compressed room air inside the chamber, along with standard therapy. This cuts costs by almost half,” says Dr Mukherjee. His therapy, which he says can also be used for treating disorders like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and mitochondrial diseases, has worked in most cases.

“Over the past three years we have treated more than 50 patients, 35 of them successfully,” he says. Dr Mukherjee, who handles about eight cases a day, says each needs about 40 sessions and eight children can be treated in two months.”

He believes the treatment for cerebral palsy or autism in India offers great scope for development. “Currently, the drugs used to treat such disorders have to be imported — an inconvenient and expensive proposition,” he says, and laments that he is not handling as many autism cases as he would like to.

The doctor, who was conferred the Hyperbaric Doctor of the Year 2010 award on 24 July at the seventh International Symposium on Hyperbaric Oxygenation and the Future of Healing at Irvine, California, introduced the low cost treatment in the country in 2007. Yet three years down the line, it is still to catch on.

“I have been talking about this at workshops, but people are not confident of stepping forward. Recently, Godrej Hospital in Mumbai asked for assistance. A few other centres have been handling sporadic cases, but nobody has a dedicated service combining standard therapy with low hyperbaric therapy,” he says.

THERE IS, however, also mild scepticism in certain quarters. For instance, while admitting that the therapy “shows promise”, Tarun Sahni, senior consultant in the medicine and hyperbaric oxygen therapy cell at Apollo Indraprastha, feels it needs a long-term study. “We need a couple of years to see if Dr Mukherjee’s patients benefited in the long run,” he says.

For his part, Dr Mukherjee says he has complete faith in his technique, and is convinced that the treatment of cerebral palsy or autism in India can be developed much more than its current state.

Three years after the doctor introduced the revolutionary technique, it is yet to catch on across India

What peeves him no end is that India still has to import expensive drugs. “We have developed the drugs, but the Drug Controller of India has been sitting on the files for a whole year. It’s a sorry state,” Dr Mukherjee says.

Photo: Naveesh Tejpal

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