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Leprosy: An Old Disease That Claimed a New Saint

Father Damien worked at a leper colony in Hawaii in the late 1800s. The infection is now curable, but there are places where it is still spreading. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

Pope Benedict named five new saints on Sunday, including a Catholic clergyman who cared for people in a leper colony.

Father Damien was born Joseph De Veuster in Belgium. In eighteen seventy-three he went to the Hawaiian island of Molokai. After several years of working in the colony, he himself developed leprosy. Father Damien died in eighteen eighty-nine. He was forty-nine years old.

Leprosy -- also called Hansen's disease -- is a bacterial disease that causes skin wounds and nerve damage. The disease can severely disfigure victims and cause death. Untreated patients can spread the bacteria from their nose and mouth through the air to people who are near them a lot.

But doctors have been able to treat leprosy since the nineteen forties. Today they use a combination of three drugs. Experts say after the first treatment, patients can no longer infect others.

At the start of this year there were two hundred thirteen thousand cases of leprosy reported in one hundred twenty-one countries. The World Health Organization says there were almost two hundred fifty thousand new cases last year. But the drug combination can cure the disease within six to twelve months.

The number of new cases has been falling in many countries. But there are places where leprosy is still spreading quickly. These include areas of Angola, Brazil, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and India. Other areas are in Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal and Tanzania.

Leprosy is an ancient disease. It victims have been highly stigmatized -- often blamed for their condition and made to feel unclean. In India, leprosy has traditionally been considered a punishment for something bad done in a former life. Other cultures have considered it a sign of evil.

James Staples teaches in the School of Social Sciences at Brunel University in Britain. He is author of the book "Peculiar People, Amazing Lives: Leprosy, Social Exclusion and Community Making in South India."

He tells us that modern knowledge about leprosy does not necessarily reduce the stigma. Public health campaigns spread the message that leprosy is curable and not highly infectious. Yet he says this message is often more scary for people than the idea that leprosy is some sort of spiritual punishment. That explanation may not do much for the patient's place in society, he says, "but at least other people don't think they are going to catch it."

And that's the VOA Special English Health Report, written by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.