MOULMEIN, Mon State — The Mawlamyine Christian Leprosy Hospital is a long-established institution in Mon State, southern Burma, that treats leprosy, a highly stigmatizing disease that has long been endemic in Burma and was only brought under control a decade ago.
Despite its reputation, leprosy can be cured, although many patients suffer life-long physical deformities, such as a loss of fingers and toes, and continue to be shunned by many members of Burmese society.
In 2003, the national prevalence rate of leprosy in Burma dropped to less than one case in every 10,000 people, the World Health Organization’s elimination target. According to Dr Saw Hsar of Moulmein’s leprosy clinic, about 250,000 people were cured in the decade since.
Some 3,000 cases, however, are discovered every year and new cases in remote, isolated areas remain difficult to detect.
Dr Saw Hsar noted that, “Myanmar has not reached elimination of leprosy in some districts or regions. Where there is civil war going on, we cannot say that we have reached the elimination target. We can only say that [these populations] ‘can’t be reach’, because there are no correct figures for such places.”
The clinic in Moulmein was founded by American Baptist missionary Susan Haswell “in 1898 with the vision to build and sustain organizational and technical capacity to empower and assist persons affected by leprosy, disability and other significant stigmatizing diseases,” according to the hospital’s Facebook page.
The clinic in Moulmein treats about 200 leprosy patients and many more stayed there after treatment out of fear for discrimination upon their return to their home villages. Some have married other patients, building families within the hospital compound.
In total, about 2,000 people live in and around the hospital. Many are amputees or have become disabled due to the disease. Of all the residents, about 700 are children, and doctors help give them an education.
Saw Silver, 88, has been living at the Moulmein clinic since he was 14 years old, when his parents sent him there after he got bitten by a snake. “When I was young and got leprosy I felt lonely and different from other kids. One of my friends said I should let a viper bite me, it would either cure or kill me. I thought it was good advice and tried it,” he said.
The snake did not kill nor cure him but this was the moment
for his parents to send him to this hospital. In Moulmein, he became a respected church leader and a member of the hospital’s board.
Jeroen de Bakker is a Dutch documentary photographer covering the different sections of Burmese society during the country’s democratic transition.