Autistic children learn how to play games at the Hope Centre under the Ha Noi Relief Association for Disabled Children. The National Hospital of Acupuncture has been pioneering the use of the ancient technique to treat children with cerebral palsy and autism. — VNA/VNS Photo Duong Ngoc
HA NOI — It was with great joy that Nguyen Thi Thu, from the central province of Nghe An's Hung Nguyen District, first saw her son walking. But she had to wait until he was five to witness this miracle.
That was because Phan Trong Dat has cerebral palsy, which he developed after catching pneumonia when he was born. The brain injury he suffered as a result meant that for the first two years of his life he was bed-ridden. Unable to walk or talk, or recognise his name.
His distraught parents sort medical advice, but Dat did not respond to conventional treatment, which traditionally takes the form of physical, occupational and speech therapy; together with drugs to control seizures, alleviate pain and relax muscle spasms. However, treatment involves relieving the symptoms and minimising further developmental problems, not curing the patient.
"For the first three years of our son's life my husband and I took him to many hospitals, but we gave up when told that he cannot be cured," said Thu, 40.
But then Thu heard about the National Hospital of Acupuncture, which has been pioneering the treatment of physical disorders by inserting needles into the skin at points where the flow of energy is thought to be blocked. They checked Dat into the hospital immediately.
At ten-day intervals, Dat received 30 minutes of acupuncture over a period of 25-30 days. After two years, Thu said her son had shown incredible progress.
"Now he can not only walk but signal to me whenever he is hungry or wants to relieve himself," she said.
Thu's son is among hundreds of children with cerebral palsy and autism that have responded well to acupuncture at the hospital under an initiative launched by associate professor Nghiem Huu Thanh, the hospital's director.
"I wanted to help ease the difficulties faced by families with disabled children, as well as the burden on society. That is why I set up the acupuncture unit for children with cerebral palsy and autism after many years of research," he said.
The programme began in 2008, and has since been expanding after proving effective.
The model applied is a combination of traditional and modern treatments that include acupuncture, massage, medicinal herbs, infrared lamps and exercise.
Depending on the severity of the case, each patient is usually treated with two or three of the above methods, Thanh said.
"The combination of traditional and modern treatment methods helps shorten the period of recovery," he said.
Formerly, children with cerebral palsy and autism were given muscular exercises, even infrared treatment. But the results are far from satisfactory.
"In fact these methods take many years and often patients do not show signs of any clear progress," Thanh said.
In 2009, 230 out of the 1,300 children admitted to the hospital with cerebral palsy responded well to treatment, a success rate of 18 per cent.
In 2011, the success rate measured 21 per cent, with nearly 300 out of 1,400 children showing goods signs of progress.
"The children were cured, by which I mean they can walk, talk, go to school and integrate with others," Thanh said.
It is a similar story for autistic children.
The hospital has treated 76 autistic children over the last four years. The number of children who were solitary and refused to play with others decreased from 89 per cent to 53 per cent, while young patients were not able to identify parts of their body dropped from 89 per cent to 40 per cent.
Most of patients treated at the hospital have health insurance cards, so the State not the parents bears the cost of treatment. Meanwhile, those under the age of 15, who are not covered by the national treatment policy, do not have to pay hospital fees.
"It costs hundreds of millions of dong per year to do this kind of work, but we manage to balance the books," Thanh said.
In addition, charities and well-wishers have contributed to the cost of providing poor children with two meals a day, costing VND30,000 (US$1.4), which has helped reduce the financial burden on their families.
Following the success of this treatment model, the programme would be expanded to other hospitals in the country, Thanh said.
It is estimated that 5-7 per cent of under-15-year-olds in Viet Nam are disabled. Of those, 40 per cent have cerebral palsy or autism, according to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs.
Meanwhile, about 3,000 children with cerebral palsy and autism are admitted to the National Hospital of Acupuncture each year. — VNS