John Zaw, Mandalay
Updated: February 06, 2013 06:15 PM GMT
At 53 years old, Sister Lina Na Po has spent nearly half her life looking after lepers in northern Myanmar’s Shan state.
Although it is increasingly rare worldwide, leprosy is still a problem in Myanmar. Abandoned by their relatives, most leper patients where she has worked have had no one to care for them but her.
Sr Na Po, an ethnic Lahu, recognizes it is a noble cause. But that doesn’t mean she has always seen the brighter side of it in her 25 years of service.
“I complained to God about why I am assigned again to the lepers and I questioned him over whether I will not have the chance to serve in other places,” she says.
Becoming a nun aged 26 in 1987, Sr Na Po was assigned to Loilem in Taunggyi archdiocese, southern Shan state, where she first came into contact with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease.
A year before the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a multi-drug therapy program, Myanmar was at that time suffering a leprosy epidemic with more than 53 cases per 100,000 people.
“I was afraid of the disease so I cried then after feeling disappointed. But I prayed to God to comfort me and help me to care for leprosy patients,” she says of her first days in Loilem.
She had no idea about the disease, she adds, and the smell from the patients was terrible.
After four years, Sr Na Po assumed she would not be treating lepers again. But she was then assigned to a colony for sufferers of the disease in Nong Kan, Kengtung diocese in Myanmar’s far northeastern corner close to the borders with China and Thailand in the notorious Golden Triangle. She spent 18 years there.
By the time she finished in Nong Kan in 2010, Myanmar’s leprosy rate had plummeted amid the ongoing nationwide treatment program led by the WHO.
In 2005, the country saw just 4.4 cases per 100,000 people, a number which rose slightly to 4.5 cases per 100,000 by the end of 2011.
Between 3,000 and 3,500 new sufferers are reported each year in Myanmar, said Dr Tin Maung Aye, deputy director of the National Leprosy Control Program, as quoted by the English language weekly the Myanmar Times.
Despite the falling numbers, Sr Na Po’s involvement with lepers continued past 2010 as she was assigned back to Loilem, her very first posting.
The lepers there arranged a party in May to celebrate her 25 years as a nun, an event which ranked among the happiest of her religious life, she says. The worst have been when she sees these same patients lacking enough to eat, a symptom of the lack of funding.
Saying she prefers the “simple life,” Sr Na Po still looks after 70 leper sufferers every day from the minute she wakes up until she goes to sleep.
“But I accepted that this was a call from God, caring for abandoned leprosy patients like a real mother,” she says.