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Forgotten lepers dream of love on Christmas

“They don’t want me because of my leprosy. I don’t know what I have done wrong. It’s painful. It’s even more painful than leprosy itself.”

Hansen’s Disease, popularly known as leprosy, caused Renato Labastida’s blindness. He has been at the Tala Leprosarium in Caloocan City for years. His leprosy had been cured, but he said his sorrow remains.

He continues to stay at the leprosarium because his family already abandoned him.

“They don’t want me because of my leprosy. I don’t know what I have done wrong. It’s painful. It’s even more painful than leprosy itself,” Labastida said.

Renato is among 65 patients at the “custodial ward” of the hospital. They are patients whose leprosy have been cured but have been forgotten or abandoned by their respective families.

At the women’s hall, 82-year-old Alejandra Dancel sits alone. She has grown old in the institution and has now learned to accept that she will eventually die at the hospital.

“My family, relatives and neighbors find me disgusting. No one comes near me. I can’t begin to explain the pain I feel in my heart,” she said.

Not so far away from Dancel’s bed is Juliana Guerrero who has been in the hospital since 1952. She is bedridden and can hardly speak. But her tears speak of her grief.

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Lonely they may be but they never stop hoping. This Christmas, they all have one wish, that their family will remember to visit.

While leprosy is one of the least contagious infectious diseases known, people who contracted it suffer from social stigma.

“They are frowned upon. They become outcasts,” said Dr. Edgardo Javillonar who served as hospital director of the institution.

Those in the leprosarium were brought by their families who never returned. “Some died without having seen their loved ones again,” said the doctor.

The Philippine Dermatological Society has said that each year, 200,000 new leprosy cases are identified worldwide while in the Philippines, 2,000 new leprosy cases are identified and treated every year.

A 2021 set of WHO data revealed that the Philippines, which is one of the 23 “global priority countries” in the fight to eliminate leprosy, had 1,150 new cases of leprosy in 2020.

In 1986, there were 38,570 registered leprosy patients in the country with a prevalence rate of 7.2 per 10,000 Filipinos. By the end of 1998, leprosy was virtually eliminated as a public health problem, with a prevalence rate to one per 2,000 Filipinos a year.

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