01/30/2010, 00.00
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Indian Christians at the forefront in the fight against leprosy

by CT Nilesh
Leprosy, a disease that has always been feared, has also generated a continuing disregard for the sick. Yet for 2000 years Christians have made it one of the fields of their mission. The example of Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, Fr Father Damien de Veuster, the Apostle of Molokai. Gandhi made the treatment of leprosy one of the pillars of his commitment. The testimony of Fr Vijay Rayarala, PIME, in his ashram Swarga dwar (Gate of Heaven) for the rehabilitation of lepers.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) - Every year the last Sunday of January we celebrate the World Day for the Sick of leprosy. In Italy the Aifo (Friends of Raoul Follereau) calls upon the leaders of some of the projects financed by them, to speak in parishes and schools. One of them, this year, and P. Vijay Rayarala, PIME, head of the ashram Swarga dwar (Gate of Heaven) who is a rehabilitation center for lepers near Mumbai in India. His departure for Rome we interviewed.  


Is leprosy still a problem in India?

Unfortunately it is. The government has officially declared that leprosy has been eradicated from India (which means, according to the criteria of 'World Health Organization, there is one case per 10,000 people) but older cases of people with deformity, although healed, are always in need of rehabilitation, this is what we do in Swarga Dwar ashram where over forty lepers with their work produce enough rice and enough milk for their needs.  


Could you tell us something about this disease?  

Leprosy is an infection that begins by destroying the peripheral nerves of the hands and feet and is caused by the bacillus of Hansen (1873), producing numbness and, then, deformities of hands and feet. It is one of the oldest diseases known to mankind and has always been feared and despised by people. Now it is treatable with a combination of three medicines (sulfone, rifampin and clofazimine). Unfortunately there is still no vaccine to prevent it. The strategy is to control it with a early diagnosis and treatment.


Why do missionaries always take care of lepers?  

The treatment of leprosy has always had a religious aspect and a symbolic meaning. According to the prophet Isaiah, Jesus became like lepers on the cross to save humanity. Even for Jesus healing the lepers was a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. It was like a sign of righting a cosmic injustice. For this reason the disciples of Jesus have always taken care of lepers. Francis of Assisi who kissed a leper has become an icon of Christian tradition. Equally Fr. Damiano, who withdrew to the island of Molokai to give religious assistance to lepers segregated there, was considered a saint even before canonization. Moved by the example of Jesus, St. Francis and Fr. Damiano hundreds of missionaries around the world have chosen the care of lepers as a sign of Christian witness. We in India also remember the example of Mahatma Gandhi who included the control of leprosy as a Constructive Program and personally cared for a leper, Parchure Sastri, in his ashram in Wardha.

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