My interest in leprosy began decades ago when I sailed from Liverpool, England to Quebec, Canada. When the ship was consumed by the tail end of a hurricane, the crossing became appallingly rough.
Unlike the vast majority of the passengers I wasn’t just ill, I was completely terrified! Feeling too seasick to leave my stateroom, to make it through the tortuously long days I curled up in a corner and read anything I could lay my hands on.
One of the books the steward loaned me was Who Walk Alone by Perry Burgess, based on the true story of Ned Langford, an American he’d met during his role as President of the American Leprosy Foundation. After serving in the military Ned was diagnosed with leprosy, and spent the next 25 years confined to a leprosarium on the Culion Island in the Palawan Province in the Philippines.
Though my book is a fictionalized accounting of a leper colony off the coast of Coimbatore, India, all attempts have been made to include the practices, policies and treatments of lepers in the early 20th Century.
As quoted from an article about the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where Clifford Harrison’s son, Alex, goes to train (URL in References):
’In earlier times, leprosy could mean ostracism, violence and religious condemnation. In biblical days, lepers were vilified outcasts whose garments where burned after victims were forcibly disinfected and quarantined.
In France during the 13th Century, more than 2,000 leprosariums were built to facilitate mass government roundups in the face of an epidemic. Such roundups went on in other countries into this century. As recently as the 1930s, lepers in China were sometimes burned alive in attempts to prevent the disease’s spread.
Medical advances have been dramatic. In 1941, the development of sulfone therapy made leprosy non-contagious. Daily doses of the antibiotic dapsone and monthly doses of rifampin have proved so effective that the World Health Organization set the year 2000 as its target date for virtually eliminating the disease.
Also called Hansen’s disease, after Dr Arthur Hansen, a Norwegian scientist who identified the bacillus causing the sickness, leprosy is typically marked by skin lesions, tissue degeneration and a numbing of nerve sensation. Many patients lose the use of their fingers and toes, while others suffer paralysis or blindness’.
Most patients exist in Third World countries, particularly Brazil, the Philippines, Vietnam and India where I established the fictional colony. The good news is the number of cases worldwide has dropped sharply in the last decade, from more than 12 million to just over 3.1 million. Because few patients are contagious, and the vast majority of new cases don’t require institutional care, centres all over the world have closed in recent years.
Thankfully leprosy is curable today with multi-drug therapy. Charities like Lepra (Leprosy Relief Association – www.lepra.com) offer remedial surgery and physiotherapy that provide a degree of improvement. As the world’s first leprosy prevention organisation Lepra is one of the world’s leading authorities on the disease, and publishes its academic research in the quarterly Leprosy Review.
The cost of diagnosing and treating people affected with the disease is staggering. The Lepra charity organization has been as hard hit by the recession as every other charity around the world. In order to contribute in some small way, I tried to get Who Walk Alone republished. But when that proved impossible, I wrote this book to tell the story of Clifford Harrison’s triumphs, heartbreaks and his great loves.
Not only do I hope you enjoy the story, I hope it stirs something inside you to donate to Lepra or other such organisations or foundations to help find a permanent cure and to support those in need. To lead by example, I am donating 100% of the book sales to Lepra to show how much I care.
Now, let’s enter the world of a 20th century leper colony where magic and hope can happen even in the darkest of hours.