China will build two specialized leprosy hospitals in the northwestern province of Qinghai, a region where the disease formerly prevailed, local health authorities said on Sunday.
The hospitals, which would cost 4.8 million yuan (about 677,000 U.S. dollars), would improve medical services to leprosy patients, according to an official with the Qinghai Provincial Development and Reform Commission.
The hospitals would open this year.
The Yushu and Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures, where the hospitals would be located, were once leprosy-prone areas, reports Xinhua news agency.
Qinghai reported a leprosy incidence rate of 0.56 per 100,000 persons in 2005, 83 percent down from 1955, as a result of eradication efforts.
Last year the Chinese government had announced it was investing at least 276 million yuan (35.4 million U.S. dollars) over the next two years, in a bid to improve the living conditions and healthcare provided at more than 600 of its leprosy rehabilitation centers.
Provincial governments were urged to take full responsibility of leprosy sufferers' disability allowances and medical subsidies.
Official statistics claim there to be 6,300 leprosy sufferers nationwide, with most cases reported in the southwest of the country.
The Chinese government has for years provided free medical treatment to leprosy suffers and has launched a continuous public campaign to eradicate discrimination and the social stigma surrounding the disease.
86-year-old Li Huanying, a doyen in the fight against leprosy, could be said to have helped cure more than 10,000 leprosy patients and is still working full time on leprosy control at the Beijing Tropical Medicine Research Institute.
Her goal is to eliminate the disease from the country, which has about 6,000 patients.
"We have to detect and treat leprosy early so that our next generation will not be disabled and crippled," said Li, sitting on her chair in a 5-sq-m office.
A bacteriology and public health graduate from the Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Li was the first Chinese woman to work as a technical expert for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Indonesia and Myanmar in the 1950s.
In 1959, she came back to China where she worked at the Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing.
In 1978, when the WHO set the goal of controlling six main tropical diseases, including leprosy, worldwide, the Beijing Tropical Medicine Research Institute appointed her to work on leprosy.
"I had only six months of experience of dealing with leprosy during the 'cultural revolution (1966-76)'," said Li. "But I had the medical background and am a fast learner."
She introduced the new WHO regimen multi-drug therapy - a free and simple yet highly effective cure.
Her efforts have played a big part in reducing the annual average number of new leprosy patients to 1,500 from about 2,000 before 1998.
Leprosy is a disease of the less advantaged and about half the patients live in the mountainous regions in Southwest China.
When Li shook hands with patients at a leprosy village in Yunnan Province, it shocked local officials and villagers.
On another occasion, she picked up a patient's shoes and put her hands inside.
"Patients often feel numb in their hands or feet, and can easily pick up skin injuries.
"I wanted to see if there were any nails or sand in the shoes."
In addition to medical treatment, elimination of discrimination and fear is vital, she said. "Fear comes from superstition, lack of education and lack of sympathy."
In rural areas, a patient is often considered a person possessed by ghosts and stigmatized.
"But I cannot understand why even some doctors shun leprosy patients."
Li, who is single, leads a simple life. She cooks three meals a day and favors vegetable salads. A domestic helper cleans her apartment twice a week.
"My greatest joy is to make myself useful and tackle the unsolved problems in leprosy control," she said.