Each shudder and jolt of the four-wheel-drive vehicle on the road to Umbaki leprosarium in Azerbaijan serves to hammer home the physical and psychological isolation of its 30- odd residents from the outside world. In a country with few cases of leprosy, they are very much out of sight, out of mind. But not entirely.
For several years now, a group of expatriate volunteers has helped the leprosarium in various ways, including raising funds to refurbish the residents' living quarters, which had been in a terrible state. Their efforts mean the aging residents now live in dignity and comfort.
Attention of another sort has come with a recent film about an ill-starred romance between a young doctor and a patient, based on a best-selling novel depicting Umbaki. For all its artistic merits, the film perpetuates notions that leprosy is spread by touching, that patients need to be incarcerated in a sanatorium, and, in one of the film's more dramatic scenes, implies that pregnancies must be terminated.
Given that most people know so little about leprosy to begin with, this film will reinforce stereotypes about the disease rather than shed light on the modern-day reality.