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Leprosy: suffering in silence

The Mayanchaung Centre in Rangoon’s Helgu Township houses around 1,600 people, 140 of who suffer from leprosy — a disease that leaves its sufferers stigmatised by society. The centre was established in 1989 to house patients from the nearby Htauk Kyant leprosy hospital. Living conditions at the centre are poor. Though it receives funding from the government, there is not enough money to provide adequate accommodation or facilities. Also known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is a bacterial infection that causes skin lesions and loss of feeling in parts of the body such as arms and feet. If left untreated, the disease can lead to the loss of limbs. Throughout history, leprosy sufferers have been stigmatised and often made to live together in colonies. “Nobody cares about us if we have this disease. We are not accepted. We have pain in our lives; we have pain in our hearts,” said one woman who lives at the centre. As the centre cannot afford to care for all the patients’ needs, many must find work. In a society that is hostile to leprosy sufferers, finding a job can be extremely difficult. “We have to find jobs and work part-time. But it’s not enough to make a living. That’s why we need donors,” said a man staying at the centre. While leprosy is curable these days, those living in remote areas in Burma often don’t get diagnosed until the condition has reached an advanced stage when it is too late for a cure.

Khin Ma Ma, 78, has been living in the centre since she was 30. She said she strives to keep her spirits up. “If you live with ordinary people and they look down on you, it is very depressing. We don’t need to be afraid of anybody when we are all the same, living together. If you are not depressed, you can live longer. Depression often leads to a short life,” she said. While the government has pledged to spend 3.38 percent of the budget on health in 2014, the health sector is still woefully underfinanced. The World Health Organisation declared Burma a leprosy-free country in 2013. Despite this, up to 3,000 people develop the disease in the country every year.