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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

FEATURE: The Old and the New

Korea's Sorokdo National Hospital gets a facelift, but preserves its historical sites


It's a six-hour drive to reach Sorokdo National Hospital from Seoul, but no longer does the last leg of the journey involve a boat ride. Three years ago, a bridge linking Sorok Island with the mainland was completed, ending the physical and symbolic isolation of this one-time leprosy colony off the southwest corner of the Korean Peninsula. The bridge is just one of the signs of change taking place on the island, as the hospital moves ahead with a program of rebuilding and renewal ahead of its 100th anniversary in 2016.

The island's association with leprosy dates back to the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945), when the authorities set up a leprosy clinic on Sorok in 1916. During the 1930s, facilities were expanded and Sorok Island became the destination for every individual on the peninsula diagnosed with leprosy. The segregation policy remained in place beyond the end of Japanese colonial rule, coming to an end only in 1963.

At its peak, the island was home to as many as 6,000 persons affected by Hansen's disease. Today that population numbers a little over 600, some bedridden and permanently hospitalized, and others living in one of seven small villages on the island. The average age of residents is 73.

On a recent visit, around 30 delegates to the World Hansen's Disease Forum toured the main hospital and some of the island's historical landmarks. Those with previous experience of Sorok were visibly surprised at the extent of the changes they saw. As outlined at the forum by the hospital's director, Dr. Hyung-Cheol Park, Sorokdo National Hospital's vision is of a bright future in which all the needs of people affected by Hansen's disease under its care are fully taken care of so that they can spend the rest of their lives in comfort.

The barred windows of Sorokdo's former prison

Written in Blood

Older buildings recall a different era, when the attitude toward the colony's inmates was in marked contrast to today. There is the former prison, where those who disobeyed the rules were sent as punishment. Using his own blood, a detainee wrote on the wall lamenting his fate.

There is also the old operating theatre, where experimental autopsies were carried out on the patients, and where men were forced to undergo vasectomies. Another message written in blood expressed sorrow at being unable to have children.

Apparently, Sorok's residents used to pray they would die on a Sunday - the only day that autopsies were not performed - so that their bodies would spared this final indignity and be taken straight to the crematorium. Such autopsies continued to be performed up until the 1980s.

In a landscaped garden, a stone monument marks the spot where in 1940 a notorious Japanese hospital director erected a statue of himself. A photograph shows patients being forced to bow before it. Two years later, the director was stabbed to death by a disgruntled patient.

Dr. Oh stands next to the autopsy table.

Dr. Dong-Chan Oh, the hospital dentist who accompanied the visitors on their tour, has worked at Sorokdo National Hospital for 16 years. "When I first arrived, the conditions were poor," he says. "The patients' wounds were festering, and flies covered their food. Things have really changed for the better."

He said that the bridge has helped to open up Sorok to the outside world. Many people have visited and this has helped to break down their prejudice. Yet discrimination remains strongest in communities closest to the island, he believes. "There is a Korean saying that your enemies are those who live nearest you. I think that still applies."