Mumbai (AsiaNews) - Some missionaries of the Immaculate Conception, a female congregation associated with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), have a history of service among the lepers of Mumbai, which began almost by chance in a slum where scores of people lived with the disease, under no one's care.
The mission came to fruition when with the Vimala Dermatological Centre was established in Versova, a Mumbai neighbourhood. The hospital can now accommodate up to 80 patients and remains a point of reference for the entire metropolis.
"Some missionaries decided to open the hospital in 1968," Sister Bertilla Capra told AsiaNews, the centre's superior, "because they could see so many sick people who needed urgent hospital treatment."
The congregation arrived in India in 1948 and took its first steps in the rural areas of the state of Andhra Pradesh. After opening a few local missions, the nuns decided to open a small facility in Mumbai, and called on PIME for help.
The Pontifical Institute had a mission in Irla run by Fr Venturini, who gave them a small nursery. On Sundays, when they were not teaching children, the nuns visited the surrounding areas. On one occasion, they came upon a slum full of lepers and decided to do something for them. With government permission, they set up shop in Versova in 1963-1964.
In 1968, it became apparent that a real hospital was needed - a place where patients could rest, undergo treatment and become rehabilitated. The facility opened in 1976 under the name of Vimala Dermatological Centre.
Sister Bertilla, who was born in Bergamo (Italy), has been in India for the past 44 years. She arrived in Mumbai in 1981, and has been the heart and soul of the hospital ever since.
"Our hospital takes in patients at various stages of the disease," the nun said. "Some have severe and acute fevers; others have open sores; some are already permanent deformed; whilst some others are in the early stage with spots on the skin. All of them however are in need of treatment, drugs and assistance."
Work in the centre is two-fold: raising awareness by providing constant information, and medical treatment in the hospital.
For Sister Bertilla, providing information "is very important because leprosy still generates widespread fear. Our task however is to make it clear to the public that it is a disease that can be treated like any other. It is caused by a bacterium that attacks peripheral nerves, especially in hands and feet as well as the skin, but if it is caught in time people do not become disabled."
"It is not a hereditary disease," she explained. "The placenta does not let in the bacteria, and there are many leprosy patients who have had healthy children. It is not a venereal disease, and it is among the least contagious illnesses in the world. More than 95 per cent of the people who come into contact with leprosy patients do not contract the disease. Patients who are infected do not pass it on if they receive modern medical treatment."
"Deformities caused by the disease are not a sign that infection is progressing. Ulcers and open wounds do not release the bacillus. They are not therefore a source of infection."
Several steps are followed in the practical treatment of the disease. "First of all," Sister Bertilla said, "we visit the neighbourhood and keep a file on each family," she explained. "We ask people whether anyone is sick; whether they saw anyone with the symptoms of the disease: spots on the skin. Every two years ago, we carry out an assessment of the areas where people with leprosy were found in order to verify whether there are any new cases. Every four years, we conduct a survey of the whole area. Our monitoring work in constant. It is especially useful for educating people and detecting cases at an early stage."
For patients who arrive at Vimala Dermatological Centre, treatment is decided as a function of the stage of disease. "We treat everybody immediately with polychemotherapy (combining three different antibiotics). In the case of a patient with an ulcer, the first thing you have to do is clean the wound. Ulcers are very serious, because they develop when feet or hands begin to lose sensitivity. Cleaning and disinfecting them is not enough. They always have to be protected. If the infection comes back, the only option is amputation."
"Then, there are people - many of them children and teenagers - who arrive with advanced paralysis. We try to operate on them, following it up with physiotherapy, to help them regain full use of their limbs."
Over the years, the activities of the missionaries have expanded to include the poor living in the area who have skin problems, tuberculosis and cataracts.
The centre currently included eight nuns, four doctors specialising in leprosy, an ophthalmologist and a dentist. These are also 30 boys and girls, six of whom are former patients.
Since 1993, the Vimala Dermatological Centre also hosts a girls' boarding school, which now has 75 girls from grade 1 to 10. They either have leprosy or are the daughters of hospital patients.
"Once we tended to separate healthy children from their sick parents," Sister Bertilla said. "Now we prefer to keep them together."
Once healed, some patients receive help finding a home, a job, or getting into vocational schools. Some get training at the centre, which now has a tailor's shop and a crafts hop.
Since 1976, the Vimala Dermatological Centre has treated 16,407 people suffering from leprosy. During the same period, the infection rate dropped from 16 active cases per 10,000 to 1 in 10,000. However, Funding remains difficult.
"Until a few years ago, the Friends of Raul Follereau in Bologna (AIFO) and the Germany Leprosy Relief Association covered all the necessary expenses," Sister Bertilla said.
"In the past few years however, since the Indian government begun saying that leprosy was slowly disappearing, the level of aid has dropped. What we get is enough to pay for the electricity we consume during the year. The government only provides medicines."
"Luckily, we also have many private benefactors, in Italy and India itself. In the latter case, it is especially nice to note that they are not all Catholics or Christians. Many Hindus offer to help, usually on the anniversary of the death of a family member."
"They come here, ask us for what we need, and sometimes pay for food worth several days. You might not believe, but this helps our balance sheet. For the rest, the centre relies on the work of our hands." (GM)