Chronicling Change

There is perhaps no other disease that has plagued the moral fabric of the society as much as leprosy.

Written by Ananya Banerjee | Published: May 13, 2012 1:59 am

There is perhaps no other disease that has plagued the moral fabric of the society as much as leprosy. With the stigma,prevalent myths and superstition that tag along leprosy,the disease has wrecked countless lives since time immemorial. However,with advances in medical science and increasing awareness in general,perceptions about the disease and patients have indeed changed. And chronicling these changes,a museum in the city is a reflection on how the Indian society has dealt with the disease over the decades.

The Acworth Leprosy Museum is located on the sprawling Acworth Complex in Wadala. Established in 2003,the museum is a joint endeavour by Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy and Acworth Leprosy Hospital Research Society. It has been largely funded by Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation,Japan. The museum is one-of-its-kind in the country,and is primarily a repository of historical artefacts and documents.

“Society’s perception of the disease has changed over the years. From the time the disease was first recorded to the scientific explanation of its cause,there has been a huge change in the mindset of people. This museum is dedicated to the thousands of nameless sufferers and to the philanthropists and social workers who worked for their cause,” said Pratibha Kathe,project co-ordinator of the museum.

A tour of the museum will give you an insight into the lives of more than 500 leprosy patients who were admitted to Acworth Leprosy Hospital post its establishment in 1890. It was then known as the Homeless Leper Asylum. Ostracised from society and admitted to the asylum,many of them fled the institute while some made it their way of life. As opposed to the 100-odd patients who are now admitted in the hospital and not allowed to work,patients who were ‘certified’ fit then were required to work. On display is wooden furniture made by the working patients. It was often sold to municipal schools in the city.

Also on display are wax models that show leprosy affected organs. For school students,there is special emphasis on posters explaining the cause of leprosy. “There are still many myths associated with the disease. It is important for people to know that the desease is caused by a micro-organism Mycobacterium leprae,and not some supernatural power,” Kathe said.

A library at the museum has stacks of archival reports dating as far back as 1860. Documents such as the First Leper Census in India in 19 Century,Report of Leprosy Commission in India (1890-91),Report on Leprosy and the Homeless Leper Asylum by N H Choksy (1901),Leprosy in the Bombay Presidency published in 1871 and written by Dr H V Carter,have all been preserved.

The research material throws interesting trivia about the disease. For example,studies show that tuberculosis is more infectious than leprosy and yet only people suffering from leprosy were segregated from the ‘healthy’ society. In 1891,residents of Trombay had petitioned against the Eduljee Framjee Albless Leper Home in their area fearing the disease would spread. The leper home eventually shifted focus to HIV patients.

Seven years after India was declared ‘leprosy free’,there are still around 700 leprosy colonies in the country. The stricken are ostracised and deprived of medical treatment. Their healthy children are also isolated and treated as outcasts. “There has been a major change in the way the disease is perceived today. Multi-drug therapy has boosted its treatment. However,it remains stigmatised and we have the responsibilty to ensure that this marginalised community gets the dignity it deserves,” Kathe said.

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