Tomorrow is the 63rd World Leprosy Day. Last year, India had the most new leprosy cases in the world: 125,785. With Brazil and Indonesia, that represents 81 per cent of all cases. PIME missionary Fr Bala Swamy Thota runs a dispensary in Taloja founded by F. Torriani. Despite his condition, one resident, Mahesh, “is happy here because he found friends”.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – As in previous years, India had the highest number of new cases of leprosy in the world in 2015, this according to the Italian Raoul Follereau Association (Associazione Italiana Amici di Raoul Follereau, AIFO), which released data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) ahead of the 63rd World Leprosy Day, which falls tomorrow, 31 January.
According to the Association, some 215,000 new cases were reported in the world last year, including 125,785 in India. Together the South Asian country, Brazil (31,064) and Indonesia (17,025), account for 81 per cent of all cases.
Also known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is still a major health problem in many countries, but it is no longer considered an emergency by many governments, which often rely on volunteers to treat and rehabilitate patients.
One of the facilities involved in this kind of work is Swarga Dwar (Heavenly Gate) in Taloja, near Mumbai (Maharashtra), a medical dispensary for people living with leprosy set up in 1984 by Fr Carlo Torriani, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).
The centre is open to patients as well as their children. The latter are often rejected by public schools for fear of contagion. The facility also includes an ashram, a traditionally Hindu spiritual hermitage or monastery found across India and dedicated to meditation.
Fr Bala Swamy Thota runs Swarga Dwar. Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that "at present, the centre has 16 long-term residents, plus some who come and go. We take care of 22 children, so that they can study and grow up. Some of the children are orphans or have lost a parent. Others are the children of patients, who have been marginalised by society."
The centre welcomes people of "every religion. Everyone lives together and shares the same moments." The daily rhythm of life in the dispensary is tight, and everyone helps in the work. "If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” said Fr Bala. “If you eat without working, you are a thief."
"Patients in the rehabilitation centre are paid for the odd jobs they perform,” he added, “whilst everything they get here – food, clothing and basic necessities – is free.”
The priest, who is a missionary with PIME, said that the centre also opens twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, for leprosy patients who do not live in Taloja. On these two days, doctors visit patients and monitor the health of their skin.
Group prayers are held each day. "We wake up at 6.30 am and have breakfast with tea. At 7 am, we celebrate Mass and at 7.30 we gather to go to work. At 9.30, we take a break for a snack and then go back to our jobs. We stop at noon for lunch, rest until 14, and then turn our prayers to the Lord. At 7 pm, we get together in the Shanthisangam (a room for interfaith prayers) and pray for the day that is ending and the work that we just did. Finally, we have dinner and go to bed at 9.30 pm.”
Among those living with leprosy, “one caught my attention,” said Fr Bala. “His name is Mahesh Sharma and he is 25 years old. He came to us in 2010. After he contracted the disease, he had to stop his technical studies. Today he is still with us and says that Swarga Dwar is the best place there is. "
The young man helps the missionaries with house chores: he cleans and tidies up things, cares for patients and helps the doctors in the dispensary.
Despite the sad condition of his disease, "Mahesh is happy here because he found friends and people who care for him.”
“He is smiling again,” Fr Bala noted. “Now his dream is to find a young woman and fall in love. He would like to get married and found a family."