Guangzhou (China): A 60-year-old woman has brought about a revolution in the lives of lepers in China.
Fu Pochu, an energetic and determined retiree from Hong Kong, decided one day to live in a leper colony and offer free care to people there. That momentous decision has made a huge difference to hundreds of lepers in south China.
Fu is the only nurse at the Tanshan Leper Rehabilitation Village in Gaoming district. She has devoted three years of her life to improving medical care and helping patients cured of the disease to live a more normal life.
In the past, people diagnosed with the terrible disease were banished from their villages and forced to live in isolation.
Fu, who is not married, never uses cosmetics or wears jewellery. She shuns air conditioners and instead uses two electric fans during summer.
Thanks to Fu, ordinary people's fears about the rehabilitated village are melting away. People from all walks of life are showing greater understanding of the lepers and aid is pouring in.
Leprosy has officially been eradicated in China.
Once thought to be incurable, leprosy can be easily cured with a 6-12-month multi-therapy antibiotic treatment introduced in 1982. However, pockets of infection still remain in impoverished parts of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Tibet in the west.
The disease used to be so feared in China that victims were burnt or buried alive. From the 1950s, sufferers were exiled to far-flung places so they would have no contact with the public.
China stopped this in the 1980s but hundreds of leper colonies remain.
They are home to about 200,000 recovered lepers and their descendants, who have little or no hope of ever rejoining society because of the stigma attached to the disease.
No longer considered infectious, the recovered lepers still bear the scars of the disease that destroys the skin, peripheral nerves and mucous membranes, resulting in the loss of fingers, toes and limbs and damage to eyes.
Fu Pochu used to work as a nurse at Nam Lang Hospital in Hong Kong. After a leg injury, she was given artificial hipbones in an operation and decided to retire in 1997.
Her first experience of leprosy came in a leper village in Panyu during a 2002 tour organised by the Hong Kong Medical Mobilization Corp, a registered non-profit charitable body.
Fu observed that people diagnosed with the disease were shunned by society and even their relatives abandoned them.
"Leprosy runs deep. It's not so difficult to cure the ulcers, but the wounds to the heart take a long time to heal," said Fu.
To her astonishment, none of the 30 or so leper villages she visited in Guangdong in 2002 had nurses. So she decided to settle down in the Tanshan Leper Rehabilitation Village where 102 patients live and where conditions are believed to be the poorest. Most people there are senior citizens.
There is one hospital in the village and Fu is the only nurse. A Christian, she tends to the lepers' ulcers and treats them as normal people.
She has organised entertainment activities at festive occasions such as mid-Autumn Festival and Christmas and distributed souvenirs bought in Hong Kong.
"I am here to treat their wounded hearts as well as their ulcers," said Fu, who spends four months a year in the leper village.
"It is necessary for us to give them more care and warmth so that they can feel human compassion before they die."
Fu's devotion has not only moved medical doctors working with the village hospital but also dispelled the phobia felt by healthy residents from nearby villages toward the leper colony.
Conditions at Tanshan Leper Rehab Village are improving. Houses have been built with government subsidies. Construction has started on a cement road linking the village to the outside world.
"I am a candle, I want to brighten up the hearts of as many lepers as I can before I finish my work here," said Fu, adding that she intends to take care of another leper colony in Zhaoqing, where conditions are worse than in Tanshan.
As the New Year begins, the candle burns brightly.