Friday, 1 March 2013

Leprosy. Saint Damien of Molokaʻi. Multi-Drug Therapy. World Health Organisation. Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict XVI canonised many saints during his Papacy, among them St Jozef Damien De Veuster, known as Saint Damien of the Lepers, in 2009: his feast day is on 10 May.  

Saint Damien was born in 1840 in Tremelo, Belgium; from early childhood his goal was to become a missionary. In 1860 he joined the order of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven; in 1864 he was sent to the Congregation’s mission in Hawaiʻi, and became a priest in 1865.

Many islanders were dying at that time from syphilis, influenza and leprosy brought to the islands by traders, sailors and other visitors. Leprosy was incurable and in 1865 as a desperate measure to prevent it spreading, the Hawaiian government deported lepers to the island of Molokaʻi, which became known as the ‘cursed isle’. Lepers were at first provided with food and other supplies but were subsequently left to their own devices without medical care.

In 1873, Bishop Louis Maigret from the Cath,olic mission asked for volunteers to minister to the 816 abandoned lepers: Father Damien was the first to offer. He threw himself into action, built a church, formed a choir and gradually brought order to the lives of the lepers. He personally tended to their ulcers, made coffins and dug their graves. He organised crops to be planted and houses, an orphanage and school to be built. After eleven years Father Damien caught leprosy but continued to work until his death in 1889, aged 49, having lived for 16 years among the lepers.
Father Damien with some of the choir
Leprosy is an infectious disease caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacillus which spreads through contact with an infected, untreated person. If leprosy is untreated or treatment is delayed it causes ulcers and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, loss of sensation and permanent disability.

Leprosy is one of the world's oldest diseases and was thought to be incurable until 1981, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) successfully recommended Multi-Drug Therapy/MDT using three drugs: dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine.

WHO has provided free MDT treatment since 1995 and around 15 million people have been cured: WHO figures published in September 2012 estimate that 5.2 million cases in 1985 have decreased to 181, 941 by 2011.

Even though leprosy is now curable, the ongoing stigma still causes lepers in some countries to be segregated and quarantined in leper colonies. In 2010 the UN Human Rights Council made a resolution recommending governments to stop discriminating against lepers.