Leprosy's ancient curse still strikes the people of Myanmar's borderlands

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 11:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 11:17pm


High in the hills of Myanmar's war-torn borderlands, a clutch of new leprosy cases among communities virtually cut off from medical help is a sign that the country's battle with the ancient disease is far from over.

It took six days by plane, boat, motorcycle and bus - plus an arduous mountain trek - for medical workers to treat two leprosy patients in a remote corner of the country, where access to even basic medicines is a dream.

But the charity-funded medics were also looking for evidence that the disease had spread. They soon found three more leprosy sufferers, one requiring hospital care.

"I promised him that I would come back for him or I would send someone to pick him up," said Dr Saw Hsar Mu Lar, after the May expedition, as he returned to his hospital in Mawlamyaing - one of only two specialising in leprosy in Myanmar.

Weeks later the patient was still waiting to travel as tensions between the army and rebels closed transportation routes.

Myanmar reached so-called "elimination" status for leprosy in 2003 - meaning less than one person per 10,000 has the illness.

But there are still about 3,000 new cases found each year and medical workers warn that the disease could be on the rise.

Decades of civil war in ethnic regions have left vast swathes of its border areas cut off from all but the most basic medical help, meaning the disease could be passing undetected.

"There can be pocket areas, hidden areas," Saw Hsar Mu Lar said. "We have to tell the world that it's not finished yet."

Leprosy is one of the oldest - and most feared - diseases. It affects the skin and deadens the nerves, meaning sufferers are prone to injure themselves, which results in ulcers and can lead to limb loss. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.

It is not particularly infectious, and modern medicine is able to cure patients relatively quickly.

But Myanmar has one of the world's least developed medical systems, with government funding consistently among the lowest of any country.

Saw Roger was chased out of his village when he started to show signs of leprosy aged 18 in the 1950s. "I lived only with the animals in the jungle and I was frightened. I used to go into my village under the moonlight and I took rice and fish paste before going back into the dark forest," the 76-year-old said.

After two years sleeping in the woods, he was found by missionaries and taken to the Mawlamyaing hospital.

Roger, whose legs, left hand and eye have been ravaged by the disease, has found sanctuary there ever since. "I can continue to look forward," he added.