Beyond the broken compound wall of the Kerala Leprosy Sanatorium at Noornad, Alappuzha District, lie a few broken lives, patched up by years of medication and social acceptance within those very walls.
Today, the 138 acres of the sanatorium, set up in 1934, has been bifurcated. The smart high compound walls of the Indo Tibetan Border Police unit stand in stark contrast to the broken walls in the other half. In the recent floods, the ITBP had played a crucial role in disaster management, saving several people in Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta districts.
The sanatorium was once the only refuge of those afflicted with leprosy and often turned out from their homes. It once had 700 beds and a bustling community of leprosy patients and doctors, nurses and para medical staff.
Aswamedham, the landmark movie (1967) on the plight of leprosy patients, was shot here. Over the years, leprosy cures made available, like the multi drug therapy, saw the number of new patients decline. But those cured, having nowhere else to go because of social rejection, stayed on and a commune was born, with farming, dairies and library, and politicians walking in and out, looking for votes.
I went there about seven years ago. It was then a sprawling place with dilapidated buildingsand had served as a general outpatient facility. There were 236 inmates, all cured. New admissions stopped years ago. Today, I wonder how many there are.
I can’t forget P. C.Unnunni, the handsome 102- year-old optimist who regaled me with stories of his youth here;or Ismail Kunju, convenor of the Patients Welfare Committee, who came here as an eight- year- old. Ismail, along with Gowri Antharjanam, 74, were bit actors too, in Aswamedham. Though a gated community, they seemed happy because of the companionship and the care they got here. More than that, they were not shunned as in the outside world.
The disease has been eradicated – that is the general belief, because we do not see leprosy patients on the road anymore.
But will this scene change? The National Leprosy Eradication drive did see the number of leprosy patients declining even as rehabilitation was given focus.
But sadly enough, the Central Leprosy Division of the Health ministry reported that new leprosy cases were detected in India in 2017. India continues to account for 60 per cent of the new cases reported globally each year. In Kerala too, it is suspected that the migrant population has brought the disease back to the State.
Apart from the multi-drug therapy followed for many years now, there is the amnion therapy.The Department of Virology, Kings Institute of Preventive Medicine, Chennai, initiated it. Amnion tissue, from placenta, rich in stem cells, was preserved and bound on old wounds of leprosy patients. The results have been encouraging.
Let’s hope the Leprosy sanatorium in Nooranad will be converted into a specialty hospital instead, as had been proposed by the Government earlier, when leprosy makes an exit from our land.