|Addressing ailments: Ton That Hung (centre) and a doctor examine an OI child after she was given a crocodile gel treatment. — VNS Photo Le Minh
by Ha Nguyen
A Crocodile Village in HCM City is using glue made from crocodile bones to treat an untreatable disease often found in children
Osteogenesis Imperfacta (OI) is a disease for which medical science worldwide does not have any effective treatment but in the Sai Gon Crocodile Village in HCM City's District 12, caretakers can do so, and are actually doing it.
The story began when Ton That Hung, director of the Lilac Crocodile Company and deputy head of the Xuan Loc Agriculture Co-operative, happened to read an article on OI children, which aroused a lot of compassion in his heart.
"I thought a lot about the OI children and wanted to find a way to rescue them. I tried to seek out books and documents to read and at the same time exchanged views with medical experts in Arthritis and Musculoskeletal.
"Finally, I found that one of most important things that led to OI was lack of collagen," said Hung, adding that his research on the Internet told him that collagen is available in crocodile's bones.
Since 2005, the Sai Gon Crocodile Village has been trying to take full advantage of the crocodile bones that contain collagen and cook these into the form of a gel. Doctors at the HCM City's Traditional Medicine Institute (HTMI) said they used the gel to treat osteomalacia patients and it proved effective, compared with other medicines, Hung said.
"I thought the gel might treat OI patients too," he said.
Three years ago, he travelled to the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta province of Ben Tre to bring an OI patient, 11-year-old Le Thi Xuan Quyen, to his village for treatment.
At that time, both of Quyen's legs were bent so much that she could neither sit nor stand on her own.
Hung and doctors from the HTMI were trying to treat her through four-method treatment.
These included medicine (crocodile gel in combination with medicinal herbs), doing exercises (guided and trained by medical workers), food and psychological treatment.
Dr Tran Van Nam of the HTMI said for children with OI, the psychological part is the most difficult because almost all of them are so frail that they find it difficult to move or to have any contact with a stranger. They are also very afraid of water.
Thanks to doctors and assistants from the village like Hung, Quyen overcame psychological issues and forced herself to do exercises and drink crocodile gel.
As a result, her broken bones came to be joined together after a four-week treatment, leaving people very astonished.
He recalled that when Quyen was brought to the village, X rays clearly showed signs of bones being broken while this changed after four weeks of treatment.
"We all thought that the new X ray was wrong because the signs of broken bones had disappeared," said Hung, adding that now, she can even swim like an ordinary child her age.
Nguyen Ngoc Van, who teaches swimming at the village, recalled it is an exploit for an OI child to know how to swim well.
"During the initial days, people had to bring the OI children to relax at a swimming pool for them to become familiar with water and then allow them to splash water upon each other and then gradually encourage them to swim," said Van.
Asked how hard it was to help the children learn swimming, Van said, "I have my own secret of how to teach children in such a way that in the course of a few hours, they learn to swim. Of course, first they have to wear a lifebuoy."
Van is a local citizen at the district. Every day he teaches swimming to OI patients at the village without charging any money.
"Hung wanted to pay me but I told him that just as he does charity work, why should I not do the same? I thought my life will have more significance if I help OI children swim," he said.
The first OI child, Nguyen Van Trung, 13, from the central province of Ha Tinh, was being operated in HCM City's Minh Anh Hospital in 2013 after being treated under four-treatment programme at the village.
Hung said, "We were all anxious and tense because it was the first time an OI patient was being operated upon."
"Thanks to the experienced doctors and leading arthritis and musculoskeletal experts, Trung's operation proved to be a complete success because he could now walk," said Hung.
After the operation, Hung was invited to the US to report about the treatment that involved use of crocodile gel. This astonished the US doctors because they said the world still lacks any effective method to deal with this disease.
Hung's effort paid off when his patient, Le Thi Thu Huynh, 12, could walk on her own feet.
Huynh is a native of the central province of Quang Ngai. She has been afflicted with OI ever since her birth and could not walk.
In 2012, she was brought to Hung's village for treatment. After two years and two operations, Huynh was able to stand and walk.
"I'm so happy to be able to walk 12 years after being born. It's a great gift in my life," Huynh said.
OI, particularly osteomalacia, has threatened humans since long. Instance of this disease have been rapidly increasing in the world. By 2000, more than eight million people faced this disease in the US and every 30 seconds, a person in Europe faces this disease.
In Viet Nam, the number of people afflicted with this disease could triple by 2030, compared to 15,000 cases in 2006, according to Professor Nguyen Van Tuan, an expert in osteomalacia.
There are many methods to deal with the disease such as supplementary calcium, vitamin D, testosterone or oestrogen and doing exercises but these methods are not as effective as the use of crocodile gel, said Dr Nam of the HTMI.
He said the institute will promote co-operation with the Sai Gon Crocodile Village to carry out more research into crocodile gel usage.
To date, more than 100 professional doctors dealing with OI and osteomalacia from various hospitals and medicinal units have co-operated with the village to treat OI patients.
The HCM City's Children Hospital 2 is ready to offer free-of-charge operations for any OI children, said Hung.
More than 50 OI children are being treated at the village. They are from different provinces in the country, such as Nam Dinh, and Son La in the north. — VNS