My Holiday at the World’s Largest Leper Colony – Giving U™

Culion_Hospital_GatesI’ve been convinced to come to Culion, once the largest leper colony in the world, by my friend Rick. I’ve never met Rick, but he is very active on my Facebook page. So naturally, I believe him and plan my entire time in the Philippines so I can venture to this in-the-middle-of-nowhere self-fashioned eco-lodge run by Jesuits priests.

It wasn’t until I was on the boat, half-way to the island, that it dawns on me….I’m going to a former leper colony. My first thought is: “They have cured leprosy, haven’t they?” I mean, they wouldn’t promote Culion as a tourist destination if the disease still exists, would they?

These are maybe questions I should have thought about, I don’t know, yesterday. When a quick online search would have provided some answers. But too late. I’m in the boat on my way to spend the next 3 nights at Hotel Maya.

To Rick and the Jesuits’ credit, the island of Culion was fascinating. Really fascinating. I spent my 3 days reading books about the history of the colony, visiting the local museum and cemetery, and learning about the cure for leprosy (Hansen’s disease).

Even better I got to meet some of the former inmates still living on the island. Like Auntie Claire, who is 70 and came to the island to live at the colony at the age of 5 when her parents abandoned her.

She was raised by the nuns in the girls’ dormitory until she was 16 and then left to get married. She said she had to get out because all they did was pray, and go to church and say the rosary day after day. She said the nuns were “ruthless.” (OK that’s my interpretation.)

Anyway, she has 10 children, 9 girls and 1 son. Her husband left her for another woman 38 years ago, but she thinks it’s a blessing because he was a drunkard and cruel to the children. Let’s just say that Auntie Claire was a character! And there’re many more like her on Culion – sweet, gracious hosts who are here to welcome us, the tourists.

Why the Leper Colony was Created

Culion_Upper_CemetaryWith the American occupation of the Philippines in 1898, one of the goals of the US colonial administration was to improve healthcare for the Filipino populace that was mired in disease and unsanitary conditions.

Leprosy was one of the scourges of the islands, with an estimated 25,000-30,000 cases at the start of the 20th century. The American solution was to set up a reservation modeled after the leper colony founded on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

So in 1906, the Culion Leper Colony was founded and a “Segregation Law on Leprosy” was passed authorizing the systematic collection and forced segregation of all persons afflicted with leprosy. The colony was in operation until 1992, during which time more than 16,000 patients were treated. The bulk of the colony residents were Filipino, but American, Chinese and Japanese patients were also interned there.

Life at the Leper Colony

The colony was run by a French order of nurse-nuns and later the Jesuits, so the rules governing the colony were fairly strict. In fact, marriage was forbidden among the inhabitants. But as our Jurassic Life buddies would say, “Life finds a way,” and in one year 142 babies were born. This out-of-wedlock coupling scandalized the nuns and priests and finally they gave in and legalized marriage (if only to save their patients’ souls).

At the time, the world still thought that leprosy was highly contagious. So the parents were only able to keep their children for 6 months, then they were removed to a hospital ward to be raised by nurses until it was determined whether or not the children were afflicted with the disease. During this time, the parents could only visit their children once a week and view them through a window – no touching allowed.

Halo_HaloAt the age of 6 the children were tested for signs of leprosy. If there were positive signs, the children were placed back with their parents. If not, the children were permanently relocated to an orphanage called Welfareville in Manila, never to see their parents again. How’s that for a completely tragic story.

The colony itself was divided into leproso and sano (clean) sections, where non-afflicted healthcare workers and administrators lived. Many of the inmates (as they called themselves) trained as nurses and worked in the hospital caring for their fellow inmates. The patients also formed their own police force, musical band, and served as teachers in the school.

Life was pretty rough for the inmates, not only physically, but emotionally, since many never saw their families again once they were brought to the colony.

A Cure!

In the mid- 1980s, they discovered a treatment called Multiple Drug Therapy (MDT) that could actually retract the disease. If the patient was found to be lesion-free for 2 years, they were allowed to leave the colony and receive out-patient care.

The testing that was performed on patients at Culion was instrumental is finding a cure. Although (let’s be real) many patients underwent all kinds of treatment tests, not all of which were successful.

Culion_StoreWe now know that leprosy isn’t hereditary and not easily communicable. In fact, less than 10% of the world’s population is even capable of acquiring the disease. Those that did get leprosy may have had a predisposition that was exacerbated by malnutrition and unsanitary conditions. In 1999, the World Health Organization declared leprosy eliminated in Culion with less than 1 in 10,000 cases found.

Come to Culion!

My time spent here in Culion was a gift. I learned a great deal and enjoy a quiet on the island that I’ve rarely experienced. After being cut off from the world for nearly 100 years, it’s like stepping back into time. It’s worth the trek here. Come and explore Culion! And tell Auntie Claire that Erin says “Hi”!

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 9th, 2011 and is filed under The Giving Guide.

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