Thursday, March 13, 2014

Leprosy: The Island of the Living Dead, Culion Leper Colony, Philippines

You are probably wondering, dear Readers, why I am writing about leper colonies. The first blog entry, a few days ago was about Carville Leper Home in Louisiana, and now about Culion Leper Colony in Palawan, Philippines.

The answer is simple.  I have a minor character who's involved with a leprosarium, and therefore I need to be an expert on the subject matter so I can write about it convincingly.

When I was a young student in Cebu, Philippines, the nuns of St. Theresa's College would occasionally take us on field trips and we'd stop by a leper colony. I remember looking out at the rural place from the school bus; I didn't really have a good feel about what it looked like. I knew the nuns worked in the leprosarium; that was all.  And downtown and at churches, I used to see lepers (hopefully inactive) begging; it was disconcerting to see their missing fingers and their deformed faces. I swear some of them had open sores, so now I'm wondering if they were indeed inactive or negative.  We also had a housemaid, who in her old age, contracted leprosy. I never knew exactly what happened to her beyond the fact that she was sent to the leprosarium.

In my consciousness, Cebu always had a leprosarium.

I didn't realize that I was wrong until yesterday.

During the Spanish times, meaning 1521 until 1898, the Spanish friars had shelters for lepers in the Philippines. I was surprised to read that they were not strictly quarantined and could visit their homes and move about more freely than I imagined.  It was during the American Period in the Philippines when the program of segregating the lepers began.

While Carville Leper Home in Louisiana was founded in 1894, the Americans founded Culion Leprosarium in 1904. In other words, Carville was the model for the Americans who set about Americanizing their colony, the Philippines. The Americans closed down all other shelters and leper homes in the Philippines and they transferred all patients to Culion Island. In 1906, for instance, 370 patients from Cebu where brought to Culion.

Because Culion, known as the Island of the Living Dead, had the world's largest number of patients (on its 25th year, there were 16,138 patients), scientists from all over the world turned to it for their research on Hansen's Disease.

It is also interesting to note that Culion had some American veterans of the Spanish-American War who contracted leprosy. Another interesting information is that people sometimes falsely accused others of being lepers out of spite, knowing these people could be separated from their families and brought to the Island of the Living Dead - Culion.

In 1907, Victor G. Heiser had full responsibility for the segregation program; under his direction, the leper colony had its own municipal government, made up of a Chief Physician and representatives from the various tribal groups in the island. There was a police force made up of patients, and there was also a civil court system. It had it's own currency. Many of the patients worked in agriculture and fishing. The community had over 400 houses, a theatre, a town hall, a school, piped-in water and sewer system. Culion was like an independent little country!

After 1935, Culion's population started to diminish. The depressed economy of the 1930s, the discovery of better treatments including sulfone in 1941, no longer required patients to be quarantined in Culion. By 1980, the patient population dwindled to 537.

Now, the old hospital in Culion serves as the Culion Sanatorium and General Hospital for the island, which has a population of 19,543

Read also
The Miracle of Carville, Louisiana Leper Home
Creative Writing: The Importance of Sensual Writing
Creative Writing: Journal Writing and my Pink Lock and Key Diary
Creative Writing: Your Writing Work Space (In My Case, Where My Cats Hang Out)

This is all for now,

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