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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

The cemetery at Tichilesti, a leprosy hospital in southeast Romania dating from 1928, where more than 100 people are buried.

MESSAGE: Thoughts from a Cemetery

Recently, I stood under a hot sun in the cemetery of Romania’s only leprosarium, Tichilesti. The leprosarium sits in a valley, surrounded by a forest of acacia and lilac. Birdsong filled the air.

More than 100 people are buried in the cemetery — a hundred different stories interred in the earth. Like many leprosariums I have visited over the years, Tichilesti is a world apart. It is set back from the main road, out of sight and out of mind.

During the country’s Communist era, the hospital was not marked on any map. The authorities did not want to acknowledge the existence of leprosy, or those with the disease.

Before the development of a cure, the solution to the “problem” of leprosy was to round people up and isolate them in places such as Tichilesti. Guilty of no crime, they ended up spending decades of their lives segregated from the rest of the population.

Today, we have multidrug therapy. Gone are the days when people diagnosed with the disease were removed from society. But elderly survivors of those times live on in sanatoriums in Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Ukraine, Colombia and elsewhere. And while science may have progressed, mistaken beliefs remain in people’s hearts.

I have written about this before, but I regard the stigmatization of people affected by leprosy — of which state-sanctioned institutionalization was but one aspect — as a negative legacy of humanity. The suffering they endured must never be forgotten. At the same time, however, this negative legacy also has a positive side: people’s powerful will to live in the face of adversity and despair, as well as the humanitarianism of doctors and nurses.

Representative of the latter is Dr. Rasvan Vasiliu, the medical director of Tichilesti. In the future, he would like to see some buildings there preserved as a museum and memorial. Places such as Tichilesti are part of our human heritage. We must ensure that the memories they contain — and the stories of the people already laid to rest — are not lost.

- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador