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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

COLUMN: Culion - The Evolution Continues

New website boosts island's profile as 'normal community,' while memorializing its past.

Nature and history are captured in this screen shot from Culion's new website, launched in April (www.culion.net)

Two years ago, the municipality of Culion in the Philippines marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of what would become the world's largest leprosy colony. The centennial was attended by high-ranking government officials and dignitaries, including WHO Goodwill Ambassador Yohei Sasakawa. But the most important guests were former residents of Culion, who returned in their thousands to see for themselves how the island they once called home had evolved from a "leper colony" into a normal community.

Looking back on the celebrations of May 2006, it is impossible to overestimate their symbolic importance to Culion. For me, the key word is "transformation." By this I mean the transformation of the old Culion "Leper Colony" into a general hospital, of the Culion Reservation into a new political unit - a municipality - and above all, the transformation that took place within each and every resident of Culion, modifiying their belief in themselves, in their fellow residents and in Culion itself. The result was Culion's full emancipation from the bondage of ostracism and ridicule that stemmed from the social stigma attached to leprosy. At last, we were no longer different.

A SPECIAL PLACE

But no longer being different does not change the fact that Culion remains a very special place. Its history ensures this, as does the beauty of its largely unspoiled scenery.

Located some 200 nautical miles southwest of Manila at the northern tip of Palawan, its relative isolation meant that Culion was deemed the ideal site for a leprosy colony when the authorities' solution to the problem of leprosy in the Philippines at the start of the 20th century was to remove people with the disease from the general population.

By its 25th year, over 16,000 leprosy patients had been brought to Culion*. At the same time, there was also a dedicated community of doctors, nurses and researchers, who carried out some of the most important work in the history of this disease.

For many of us, the Culion centennial was about remembering not only the suffering and the sacrifice, but also the contributions of so many people to increasing our knowledge about leprosy, and ultimately, to overcoming the disease despite many setbacks along the way. The remarkable story of the island, its inhabitants, and Culion's contribution to leprosy research can be found in the Culion Museum and Archive, which was re-launched at the time of the centennial and now attracts a steady stream of tourists and researchers.

NEW CHALLENGE

Because of the spotlight it shone on the island, the centennial helped to open the gates to people interested in experiencing the beauty of Culion's white sand beaches, bountiful forests and pristine environment. This increased attention comes at a price, however, as the once silent and empty streets now teem with motorbikes and tricycles. New businesses are opening, the population is increasing and the demand for more and better amenities grows. Today, therefore, we find Culion adjusting to the challenge of being a "normal" community.

One noteworthy development since the centennial has been the launch this spring of a new website devoted to Culion. An initiative of the Culion Leprosy Control and Rehabilitation Program, it is a gateway to Culion's history, museum and archives, the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital, and the Culion Local Government Unit. It reveals the riches that social scientists and historians will find when they visit, and showcases the stunning views with which the island is blessed. The response from former residents of Culion, especially those who have emigrated to Europe or North America, or are working abroad, has been particularly encouraging.

Culion, we like to say, is truly a "paradise regained." Please come and see for yourself.

AUTHOR:Dr. Arturo Cunanan

Dr. Arturo Cunanan is head of the Culion Museum and Archives Project, Culion Leprosy Control and Rehabilitation Program.



Reference

* For the last eight years, no new cases of leprosy have been detected on Culion. The number of people affected by the disease is less than 1% of the island's population today. Suffering from complications and disabilities, they are either confined to hospital or living with relatives.