Magazine article UN Chronicle

Tender Care for Leprosy Patients

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Tender Care for Leprosy Patients

Article excerpt

XIANG HAI AN VILLAGE, located 72 kilometres from Kunming, China, lies on top of a steep mountain hill overlooking a scenic view of the valley below. Fields of bright flowers and vegetable crops sweep across the valley amidst endless rolling hills in the distance.

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It is a 25-minute hike to reach the small village that is enclosed by mud-block walls. Originally built in 1926 as a monastery for nuns, it was virtually cut off from the outside world. The decaying remains of a former temple, now used for storage, are still standing. In the early 1950s, the local government took over the area and converted it into a community for leprosy patients, renaming it Xiang Hai An Leprosy Mission. An old wooden door, dating back more than 75 years, opens up to the grounds of the centre.

In the beginning, up to 500 men and women underwent treatment in the village, and there were over 40 doctors and nurses at one time tending to the patients. After being treated and their leprosy contained, the majority of patients returned to their villages, while those homeless or unaccepted by their families remained behind. When Habitat for Humanity Inc. (HFHI) began planning for the leprosy project in 2002, there were 32 patients (23 men and 9 women), aged from 40 to 86 years old; in 2006, there are 18 male and 5 female patients, whose average age is 65. This was the first project for HFHI China, in joint partnership with the American Leprosy Mission.

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The project involved rebuilding, renovating and improving housing structures. Roofs were repaired, walls plastered, doors and windows widened for better ventilation, and dirt floors replaced by concrete floors. A new 13-unit structure, each measuring 15 square metres, divided into two rows facing each other, was built to house 12 persons, with one unit to be used as a kitchen. A solar power was installed so that villagers could have hot-water showers; a biogas unit provided light and was used for cooking purposes.

More than 200 foreign and local volunteers spent three months working on the project. Patients received care they had rarely experienced before. The burden of years of isolation had slowly been lifted. Even nearby villagers were amazed at the transformation. Dr. Qian from the County Skin Disease Prevention Station was also impressed: "These are homeless persons--no family, no friends. They were put in this village and have subsequently become a family together. They will have no relatives coming to help them renovate their houses. But they have HFHI and friends to help them."

The village physician, 52-year-old Li Fen, was first affected by leprosy when she was 17. It was then that she decided to learn more about the treatment and made it her lifelong commitment to help those afflicted with leprosy. Although she has never attended medical school, she received training from doctors and at a leprosy centre after she recovered from the disease. At that time there were 130 patients living in the centre. "For all of us who have leprosy, we have suffered too much from the stigma. It is a very personal ordeal we all undergo, one of loneliness and shame that we carry with us all our lives. It was because of the extreme hardships of the patients that I felt I had to devote my life to make it easier for them. I lived with them through their difficulties and will die here too as they do. Although they are now elderly, some of the patients still work in the fields, growing vegetables, raising chickens and pigs for extra income to pay for medicine."

Dr. Li Fen eases the patients' suffering through injections to relieve the pain and gives them medicines and vitamins. Each month, the local government provides each patient with 120 RMB ($15), which is used for medicines and some additional food. "When I first came here as a teenager, I knew I would try to make it easier on the patients here. …

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