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Help and hope in India for sufferers of Hansen’s Disease

Bhopal (UCAN): At 66, Brunda Mohanty vividly remembers the painful situation when he left home as a 14-year-old boy. His mother had died early in his childhood and people in his ancestral village of Nirakarpur, in Puri district of India’s Odisha state, loved him so much.
But that was until some patches appeared on his body. “Soon my loved ones began to treat me as an outcast,” he said in a soft, forgiving voice. Slowly, he realised he had contracted Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy, a disease Indians consider a curse.
Sitting inside Karunalaya (house of mercy) Leprosy Care Centre in Puri, Mohanty recounted how he happened to land in the enclave that Polish Divine Word Father Marian Zelazek had started in 1976 to help people like him.
Just like Mohanty’s family, some 160 families now live in the centre with their children and grandchildren. With the third generation growing up here, the place has become their home. All the older residents fled their homes and villages following severe social ostracisation.
After leaving home, Mohanty boarded a train without a ticket and landed in a slum area of Puri city. He soon found himself living in a slum occupied mostly by people like him—infected with Hansen’s Disease and considered outcasts.
For his food, Mohanty begged around Puri’s famous Jagannath Temple, which attracts hundreds of visitors each day. He lived that life for almost nine years until he had a chance meeting with Father Zelazek.
The missionary offered him free medical care, food and accommodation. “Until then, no ordinary human being knowingly even came close to me or people like me,” he said. “He himself dressed my wounds and applied for medicine. That made me think there are still people who love me.”
Father Zelazek, who had spent five years in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany during World War II, died in 2006 at the age of 88.
Divine Word Father Baptist D’Souza, who is now director of the centre, said it is home to about 700 people.
Although most residents are either cured and their children and grandchildren have no infection, “they live here because they have no other place to go,” he said.
Father D’Souza said the primary aim of Father Zelazek was to ensure a dignified life for patients with Hansen’s Disease who were totally unwanted in society, including by their families.
When the Polish missionary started the mission, “it was tough to convince people that this disease is just like any other and can be cured if detected in the early stages,” Father D’Souza explained. Even trained medics were unwilling to treat patients because they feared infection, he said.
Christian missionary work by the likes of Father Zelazek has brought a social change. “Now nobody treats leprosy patients as outcasts or is afraid of providing them with medical help,” Father D’Souza said.
Mohanty said he is indebted to Father Zelazek for what he is today. After joining the centre, he worked as its gardener for a living and continues to do so to this day.
Just like him, every resident was offered some work and a wage. They were helped to find life partners and their children were educated.
Since the early 20th century, Catholic missionaries have set up colonies across India to take care of Hansen’s Disease patients who have been suffering social neglect.
The World Health Organisation’s 2011 reports show that the world has some 250,000 people with leprosy and more than half live in India. In 1991, the country had 75 per cent of Hansen’s Disease patients in the world.
India launched the National Leprosy Eradication Programme in 1983 with support from global agencies, but India is still the country most affected by leprosy in the world.
Father Zelazek’s centre includes a 20-bed hospital exclusively for Hansen’s Disease patients. It provides free medical care, food and accommodation. The number of people seeking medical care has come down to less than five annually.
He also started a school to help the education of children of people affected by Hansen’s Disease as they could not get admission to mainstream schools of the time. However, Beatrix School has now become part of the mainstream education system. Only about 150 of its 800 students come from the colony.
“Some 25-years back, we could not imagine children from normal families joining our school even if they were offered the moon,” Divine Word Father Joseph Daniel, explained.
He said most residents ended up making the centre their permanent home as they were not accepted in their villages even after they were cured.
One example is 65-year-old Prabhulla Sahu from Sonpur village in Boudh district. He was diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease at 12-years-old, but was cured after treatment by Christian missionaries in another village.
“When I returned home, I was not allowed to enter the village and was forced to leave. Neither my parents nor three siblings came to my rescue,” he said.
He was homeless for several years and finally landed in Puri, where Father Zelazek gave him shelter in the colony. He later married the daughter of another couple living at the centre. They have children and grandchildren.
“The stigma of the disease is no longer there and I visit my family members,” Sahu said.
Julia Tete, a regular visitor to the centre, said there is no difference between Hansen’s Disease sufferers and other people.
“The Catholic missionaries’ continuous service with the lepers for over four decades has helped people realise that leprosy is a curable disease and does not infect anyone who just goes near them,” she said.