Sister Lina Na Po from Sisters of Charity talks to a leprosy patient at Naung Kan leper colony near Kengtung in Myanmar’s Shan State. (ucanews.com photo)
A quiet Myanmar village welcomes people who have contracted leprosy regardless of race and religion.
Naung Kan, just 8 kilometers away from Kengtung town in Shan State, has a leper colony with old and newly built homes for long-term residents along with a church, nuns’ convent, priest’s residence and a clinic.
It’s a daily routine for Sister Lina Na Po to provide medical support to leprosy patients, including some from nearby villages, every morning except Sunday.
The nun, who is in charge of the clinic, helps treat 97 long-term residents, some as old as 80. Nuns provide food, shelter and medical support to patients, some of whom receive financial support from children working elsewhere.
Most patients are Catholic but others are Buddhist and animists who are ethnic Shan, Lahu, Akha, Palaung, Wa and Chinese.
“It’s a place called home for them as the nuns show compassion, love and kindness and they don’t face any discrimination here,” says Sister Na Po from Sisters of Charity, also known as Maria Bambina nuns.
An elderly leprosy patient takes a smoking break at Naung Kan. (ucanews.com photo)
About 600 people including children reside in the colony. Some children have no disease but live with their parents. Two nearby villages have 400 people including some who do not have leprosy.
Naung Kan is a haven for leprosy sufferers who were forced to leave their mountain villages in Shan State due to discrimination.
For ethnic Shan man Carmello, Naung Kan is a place he is happy to call home. He was forced to leave his village 35 years ago after being rejected by his community. He walked for several days to reach the leper colony.
“I receive love and warmth from the nuns and I don’t want to go back to my village as I will face discrimination,” the 55-year-old father of four, who converted to Catholicism from Buddhism, told ucanews.com.
Sister Na Po says the number of people with leprosy at Naung Kan is decreasing but a new patient recently came to the clinic. An 18-year-old girl from Yangon who was working in Shan State was found with leprosy symptoms including a big sore behind her right foot and a lack of mobility in the fingers of her right hand.
“The girl wants to be admitted to the colony and we will accept her after getting a recommendation from health officials in Kengtung township,” says Sister Na Po.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says leprosy is a chronic but not highly infectious disease. If left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Medical programs using multi-drug treatments have reduced the number of disease-afflicted people around the world.
Myanmar is one of 16 countries still reporting more than 1,000 new cases of leprosy a year. Myanmar achieved the WHO target of eliminating leprosy in 2003, meaning less than one in 1,000 people are infected. But at least 3,000 new cases of leprosy are reported in the country every year.
Sister Lucia Marcellina, superior of the Maria Bambina nuns in Naung Kan, says her daily routine involves managing meals and teaching English to the children of leprosy patients. Six nuns run a nursery school and a boarding school for students including orphans.
Elderly leprosy patients sit in front of their rooms at Naung Kan. (ucanews.com photo)
Funding remains a major challenge for the nuns despite help from local donors and Kengtung Diocese.
“We give moral support and provide food and medication as much as we can,” says Sister Marcellina.
The Sisters of Charity of Saints Bartolomea Capitanio and Vincenza Gerosa congregation, founded in Italy in the 1830s, opened St. Joseph’s leper hospital in 1923 with 146 lepers in Kengtung.
In 1934, Naung Kan leper colony was established by Dr. R.S. Bucker of the American Baptist Mission. In 1939, the nuns took charge of the colony as Dr. Bucker had to leave the country because of World War II.
In 1946, St. Joseph’s leper hospital and Naung Kan leper colony were united and Father Cesare Colombo of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions took charge of Naung Kan with the help of Maria Bambina nuns.
Father Colombo established three villages in Tar Lay and Mong Phyak townships for those who are cured at Naung Kan.
A memorial hall at Naung Kan displays equipment, photos and vestments of Father Colombo. The missioner was imprisoned by the Japanese army during the war but he survived and kept working with the nuns until he died in 1980.
Sisters of Charity arrived in Myanmar in 1923 and now has 196 nuns serving in six dioceses. Their mission includes a home for the handicapped and disabled, a home for the elderly, leper colonies, boarding schools and orphanages.
For more on the Naung Kan leper colony watch this video: