The Goodwill Ambassador calls at a leprosy resettlement village in Myanmar.
|(Top) Elderly residents of Mitta nursing home in Mayanchaung Resettlement Village; (above) with worshippers at the Baptist church|
Myanmar eliminated leprosy as a public health problem in 2003 but still sees some 3,000 new cases per year. There are said to be around 300,000 people affected by leprosy in the country; of these, 40,000 to 60,000 are living with disabilities.
About 90 minutes by car from Yangon is the Mayanchaung Resettlement Village. The government established a national leprosarium here in 1953 to isolate people with the disease. With social rehabilitation in mind, it closed the leprosarium in 1989 and set up the resettlement village.
I had met some of the residents 10 years ago when they came to see me in Yangon and I had always wanted to pay them a return visit. Now that opportunity had arisen and I headed out of Yangon accompanied by Dr. Min Min Htun of the Department of Social Welfare and Health Planning as well as a contingent of journalists.
As in other countries, people affected by leprosy in Myanmar often find it difficult to reintegrate into society because of social stigma. One way to break down the barrier of discrimination is through informed reporting, which is why I had invited the media to cover my visit.
The village has a population of around 1,600, of whom some 120 are people affected by leprosy. Of these, half live in the Mitta Philanthropic Center, which was my first stop. The center is for people who are unable to live in the village independently and was opened in 1989 by the social welfare ministry.
Residents had gathered in an assembly hall to welcome me. Many were elderly and in wheelchairs, from a generation that contracted leprosy before multidrug therapy became available. I explained why I was accompanied by so many journalists — that it was to help the public gain a better understanding of leprosy through accurate reporting. I was pleased to see plenty of stories in the local press in the days following that shone a light on Mayanchaugn and leprosy.
The nursing home is divided into male and female quarters, with residents living in dormitory-type wards. As I toured the facilities, I noticed one or two younger residents, who were evidently disabled. I wondered why they had not received treatment sooner. They each told me a similar story — that they had been too busy making ends meet to spare time to go to a hospital. I couldn’t help wondering, however, if fear of being stigmatized had held them back until the damage was done.
I also went to a Baptist church in the village. As it was Sunday, a congregation had gathered to worship. They interrupted the service to speak with me. “I came down with leprosy and was abandoned by my family,” a woman told me. “I am saddened by the prejudice I suffered. But thanks to God, I am alive and do not want for food or other necessities.”
Sustained by their faith, they sang a couple of songs for me. As I listened, I found myself moved to tears as I thought about the hardships they must have faced in their lives.
I recalled the first time I visited a leprosarium, in 1965, when I accompanied my father to South Korea. I had been shocked by the effects of the disease on the faces and limbs of those afflicted, and the isolation in which they lived. I felt I had been reminded of this now for a reason.
There are still many people in the world, like the lady I met in the church, who have been separated from their families because of leprosy. For some it is now too late to redress the situation. What we must ensure, however, is that no one who is newly diagnosed with this disease today has their family ties severed because of leprosy.