Cured Lepers of Ivory Coast Face Desertion by Government, Families

by VR Sreeraman on  May 21, 2008 at 11:34 AM General Health News
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Cured of their disease, the remaining residents of this Ivory Coast leper colony now face the plight of being abandoned by their government and most of their families.
 Cured Lepers of Ivory Coast Face Desertion by Government, Families
Cured Lepers of Ivory Coast Face Desertion by Government, Families

"We're the last survivors, all alone, our families having abandoned us," says Dosso, 69, one of 20 cured leprosy sufferers still living in Marchoux or Gnankanassi ("Thank God" in the local Ebrie language).

"It's only recently that my parents visited," he added bitterly, recalling his 38 years in the village built in 1950 along a bumpy road on the side of the Ebrie lagoon, separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow coastal strip.

The village takes its French name from a missionary doctor, Emile Marchoux (1862-1943), renowned for advocating a more humane treatment of one of the world and history's most misunderstood diseases.

Marchoux wanted to see model villages of this sort set up -- Marchoux-Gnankanassiwith boasts electricity and safe drinking water, a school and a medical clinic.

But deep-rooted beliefs that leprosy is a divine curse mean the reality of living with the stigma of disfigurement even after successful treatment can be harsh.

The scars the disease leaves are serious -- with severe injuries to hands and feet, even if amputation can be avoided with early treatment, and facial disfigurement.

The problem with leprosy is the time it takes to reveal itself. The average is two to five years but in some cases the disease can incubate for 20.

Contrary to popular belief, leprosy is not particularly contagious. It is transmitted by nasal droplets and requires a person to come into close and regular contact with a carrier.

Ten years ago, there were around a hundred carriers of the disease in the village, another inhabitant recalled. Some had come from as far away as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger or Benin.

But it was not always the effects of dead flesh which killed those who have gone.

"Solitude, isolation and poverty," are offered as equally-powerful explanations for the decline in numbers.

Thanks to antibiotic treatment issued free since 1981, which kills the bacteria responsible for incubating the disease, the Marchoux survivors are certainly cured of leprosy.

That has landed them in a new plight, however. As the government in Abidjan considers them cured, they have been cut off social security assistance.

The colony's remaining residents are looked after by the village's some 500 inhabitants, offspring and descendants of past leper inhabitants.

Charitable associations also help assure their continued existence, but the community is seeking financial aid for agricultural projects they believe can make Marchoux truly self-sufficient.

"Beforehand, our womenfolk sold the fish we caught," said Ernest, a 55-year-old whose eyes are hidden by large dark glasses and who has lived here since 1967.

But fish stocks in the lagoon have declined steadily due to pollution, leaving Marchoux residents looking for a new line of work.

Refusing to fulfil the ancient leper role of beggar, they want to raise pigs or poultry and trade their way into comfort, if not prosperity.

"We are the last and our dream is to leave a village peopled by able-bodied, working men, to create a lasting memorial to the hundreds of lepers who passed through," said Dosso.

Marchoux is one of four leprosy treatment centres across the Ivory Coast.

In January, the country's health minister, Remi Alla Kouadio said that 1,156 new cases had come to light in 2007 and that 1,367 people were receiving drug-based treatment, which usually takes between six and 12 months.

"Since 2001, leprosy is no longer a public health concern in Ivory Coast as less than one case per 10,000 head of population is reported," the minister added, referring to the World Health Organisation (WHO) statistical definition for serious concern.

"Nevertheless, our toll is still high within an African context," he added, highlighting persistent clusters in the west and the north of the country.

While many countries have eliminated the disease, pockets of high endemicity still remain in some areas of Angola, Brazil, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal, and Tanzania, according to the World Health Organisation.

More than 14 million people have been cured with multi-drug treatment in the past 20 years.

Source: AFP

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