|With Dr. Grillone (right) on Anjouan|
I have met many people who have dedicated their life to leprosy work. I can now add 78-year-old Dr. Saverio Grillone to that list. Dr. Grillone—not a medical doctor, as he is quick to tell me—has spent the last 40 years in the Comoros islands where he now works as coordinator for Action Damien on Anjouan.
After earning a law degree and then studying for a PhD in psychology, Dr. Grillone took a course on leprosy at the Fontilles sanatorium in Spain before going to work in Ethiopia. Returning to his native Italy, he had the chance to accompany an Italian leprosy mission to Comoros in 1977, two years after the islands gained their independence from France. When the mission was withdrawn, he approached Action Damien as he wished to continue his work.
In the early days, there was a lot of discrimination and nurses did not want to be involved with leprosy patients, he told me. Dr. Grillone approached the president of the day and gained his understanding to build a leprosy section within the dermatology wing of Hombo Hospital, rather than an isolated facility elsewhere.
When the ward was completed, funded by Fondation Damien, the president declared that leprosy patients were no longer to be referred to by a stigmatizing term found in the Comorian language. “He really understood,” Dr. Grillone told me. “It led to improvements in the way people with leprosy were treated by society and their families.”
Less quick to improve have been the poverty, malnutrition and overcrowding that impact the program’s ability to eliminate leprosy—“and there are other factors that need to be investigated, such as genetic susceptibility and the role of monkeys and ticks as possible disease vectors,” he told me.
Dr. Grillone does point to some positive developments. “More cases are being discovered by patients themselves and a relationship of trust has built up with leprosy workers. Patients know that treatment is free and they won’t be asked for money. Word is spreading,” he said.
“Over these 40 years, I have always remained an optimist and never felt that that what I am doing is hopeless, although there have been times when I’ve felt I haven’t made a difference,” said Dr. Grillone. “Your visit has given me renewed strength—and thanks to your visit, the health minister has come, too.”