We met Dr. Vikas Amte’s cousin, Dr. Vijay Pole, at Anandwan’s Leprosy Hospital. Vikas Amte says, “I see God in him”, because if it wasn’t for him he wouldn’t be able to do his scientific experiments in Anandwan. Dr. Pole, a Leprologist, gave us a tour of the hospital, which has separate wards for male and female patients. He said all the staff members are leprosy-cured patients since it is difficult to find people to work in the hospital, .
We learned that leprosy is a mildly contagious disease but ceases to be so only after a few days of treatment with Multidrug Therapy (MDT) pills, which are to be taken for a period of 6 or 12 months depending on the number of “patches” on the skin. If there are 5 or less patches, then the patient is treated with MDT for 6 months. However, if there are more than 5 patches, then 12 months of medication is required.
The patch can appear anywhere on the skin and is slightly lighter than the rest of the skin. If not diagnosed and treated on time with MDT, the patch loses sensation after a few months.
We also learned that leprosy does not by itself cause deformation. Left untreated, finger tips, toe tips, nose, ears and eyes begin to lose sensation. Once the sensation is completely lost, these parts are susceptible to damage (e.g. from burns), which leads to rotting and then deformity that we commonly see in leprosy-afflicted people who don’t get treatment on time. Therefore, early diagnosis and treatment are of utmost importance.
Leprosy is a bacterial disease that only affects humans and its exact cause is one of the biggest mysteries in medical science. However, it is one of the few diseases that can be fully cured with medication. Diabetes, Heart Disease and Hypertension have no cure. Mostly, but not necessarily, leprosy is prevalent where nutrition and hygienic conditions are poor. As such, good hygiene and cleanliness are stressed at Anandwan and is obvious to anyone who steps foot within its boundaries. During my previous visit to Anandwan in 2009, Dr. Amte had said that he sometimes takes his dignitary visitors to see Anandwan’s clean public toilets because he is so proud of that! Everyone living in Anandwan is also provided with wholesome and nutritious meals.
Interestingly, leprosy has also affected affluent people. Several high-profile people have visited Anandwan for treatment for leprosy.
Future of Leprosy Treatment in India
Thanks to increased awareness and outreach programs, leprosy is now diagnosed and treated early. Early treatment means that deformation does not occur. Since deformation is no longer commonly seen, a survey conducted by the Government of India has concluded that leprosy has been eliminated (WHO – World Health Organization – defines eliminated as a prevalence rate of less than 1 in 10,000 population) in India. As a result, a separate department for leprosy was merged with the health department and medical facilities are being closed down.
Once a disease has been eliminated, outreach programs are also often stopped. However, a recent world wide study found that 67% of the overall new cases, showing no deformity, are in India. The states where leprosy is most prevalent are Maharashtra (Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts), Andhra Pradesh and Bihar.
Government Help for Leprosy-Afflicted People
Due to lobbying efforts taken by Dr. Vikas Amte’s children, Mr. Kaustubh Amte and Ms. Sheetal Amte, since April 1st, 2012, the government has increased its allowance for the care of leprosy-afflicted people from a meager Rs.15.50 per person per day (US$0.28) to Rs.70 per person per day (US$1.27) for a maximum of 1200 people.
Anandwan currently has around 1450 leprosy-afflicted people with 5-7 new patients coming in on a weekly basis.
Clothing Donation Center
We met Ms. Ashmesha at the new clothing donation center. At the center, used clothing is collected, sorted and distributed after fixing (if necessary) to those who need it. The “Goonj Institute” process is used for the sorting of donated clothes.
The center was buzzing with activity with several volunteers sorting the clothes as per Goonj’s ‘Material Coding List’ and placing them into labeled bins. A lady behind a sewing machine was busily stitching clothes that needed to be fixed. Clothes that cannot be fixed and any left-over cloth after stitching are used to make purses, bags etc. Nothing is wasted.
The clothes are used at Anandwan and also for a new outreach program, which aims to reach out to remote villages and engage villagers to build roads, dams etc. as per their requirements. As payment, they get clothes instead of money. School children also get similar-type clothing, which they can use as a school uniform.
Ms. Ashmesha is using the outreach program to promote the use of sanitary napkins for women in rural areas. Women are given reusable cotton sanitary napkins and are also taught how to make them for themselves.
Home for Leprosy-Afflicted Senior Citizens
We went to the home for leprosy-afflicted senior citizens who had helped build Anandwan. They were Dr. Vikas Amte’s “army”, which he could call upon at any time. Dr. Amte had taken them to help in the relief efforts when an earthquake had struck in the Latur region of Maharashtra in 1993. It was also this army that had helped Dr. Amte dig wells and lakes, build check-dams, construct housing, schools and hospitals at MSS’s Anandwan, Somnath, Hemalkasa and other projects. The Lok Biradari Prakalp hospital and housing at Hemalkasa were also built by leprosy-afflicted people from Anandwan.
They have been at Anandwan for a long time and are now too old to work. Dr. Amte says, they, numbering around 1800, are a liability on him but he will take care of them as it was his father’s wish to look after them in their Golden Years. The same people had taken care of Baba and Tai when they were sick.
They were all smiles when we visited them. Although some of them were too frail to even get up from their beds, they immediately pressed their hands together and greeted us with “namaskar” (hello) as soon as we walked into their room. Some of the more active ones even happily posed for the photographer (i.e. yours truly)!
Dr. Amte, who was the main speaker at an event in London’s Buckingham Palace where he received the Templeton Prize (1990), the world’s most valuable award, on behalf of Baba Amte, started his speech written by his father with these words: “The joy in Anandwan is more infectious than the disease in Anandwan.” You only have to meet these senior citizens once to know how true that is.
Sukh Sadan – “The House of Happiness”
We visited Sukh Sadan (“The House of Happiness”), which is a commune for rehabilitated leprosy-afflicted and disabled people. In the commune, Baba had arranged for two young couples and one older couple to stay in one home thus forming a traditional Indian joint-family. This way, family relations could be preserved and understood by those who were otherwise disowned by their blood relatives outside Anandwan. The older couple are like the parents of the young couples and the children of the young couples would have someone to call uncle, aunt grandmother, grandfather. In addition, the joint-family structure ensures that the older couple can be taken care of by their “children”, the young couples, whose rooms are on either side of their “parent’s” room.
The homes in the commune typically do not have a separate kitchen, but rather there is a single common kitchen for the commune where pure vegetarian food is served. The idea is that everyone should eat together. As the old saying goes, the family that eats together stays together.
Cooking gas for the kitchen comes from a nearby bio-gas plant, which is designed and built by Dr. Amte. There are several such communes in Anandwan and Somnath.
Wandering Around Anandwan
Before I write about Swaranandwan – Anandwan’s Musical Orchestra – and about the many things that I learned when I joined Dr. Vikas Amte for his morning walk and afterwards when Bhakti and I had a one-on-one with him, I want to share a couple of things that I experienced while Bhakti and I were wandering around Anandwan on our own.
Sanctuary’s Vigilant Gate-Keeper
Bhakti and I were strolling through the grounds of Anandwan and walked past Shraddhawan towards the Abhayaranya (Sanctuary). The Abhayaranya is a wooded area that has a gated dirt road going through it. The gate was manned by an old leprosy-afflicted man. He was old enough to be our grandfather so we called him ajoba (grandfather).
After chatting with ajoba for a bit, we crossed the gate and made our way forward and came to a T-junction where we ran into a couple of Hindi-speaking guys. We learned that they were migrant workers from Bihar who were working in the nearby town of Warora. They seemed quite normal to us. Just as we were chatting, our ajoba, who had been watching us from his gate post, walked quickly towards us and angrily asked the two fellows to leave immediately and cautioned us to stay away from them as “they are up to no good”. After the two left, he said he had seen them before and knew they were trouble-makers. He said that they will accost us when nobody is around and will try to steal our valuables.
Heeding ajoba’s advice, we took the road on which a couple of people from Anandwan were working. We noticed that the two guys were walking slowly and keeping an eye on us. We also noticed that ajoba was watching us from the T-junction where we had left him and he was making sure that we were okay. Clearly, he did not trust the two fellows.
We crossed a huge man-made lake on which were many migratory birds (yet another success story of Anandwan). Next, we came across a few very large enclosures; one for deer and another for emus (ostrich-like Australian birds). There was even a water tank in which were crocodiles! The crocodile tank was somewhat in an isolated area so we made sure that the two guys were not nearby when we went there.
We returned back to the area that had a few other people nearby and ran into the fellows again. At that time, one of the guys asked us, “Did you see the crocodile?” I said, “Yes, we saw it already”. Then he said, “Come, let’s go see the crocodiles.” In reality, they were the crocodiles! We walked away from them.
I am very thankful to ajoba for being so vigilant and for looking out for our safety.
Ready? … 1, 2, 3, CLICK!
It was mid-morning when we walked past Anandwan’s two government-recognized residential schools for the blind and deaf-mute children. The schools were built by leprosy-afflicted people of Anandwan.
We saw some children playing a game of cricket in the ground in front of the school for the deaf-mute. The game was unusual in the sense that none of the children were making any noise; they were deaf and mute. I started taking some pictures and when they saw me with the camera all the kids ran towards me and insisted, via hand gestures, that I take their photo. I must have taken dozens of pictures until everyone was happy. Although they could not speak, I knew exactly what they wanted; some wanted a picture taken with their best friend(s) and still others wanted an individual shot!
It was heart-warming to see their happy faces when I showed them their digital pictures on the camera’s LCD screen.
I made a mental promise to print and send them their pictures when I go back to Canada.
To be continued … Click for Part Three.
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