05/13/2011, 00.00
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Lepers in Vietnam: Catholic Church working to help them and fight discrimination

by Thanh Thuy
Priests, religious and volunteers are involved in a difficult task to help thousands of patients who are marginalised by society and left without proper medical treatment. “We must have strong determination to help them,” the bishop of Kontum says.
Kontum (AsiaNews) – According to official Vietnamese government statistics, the country has 18,000 lepers living in 21 big camps. Both they and their children are victims of daily discrimination. On Tuesday, Mgr Hoàng Đức Oanh, bishop of Kontum, visited Thăng Thiên parish to celebrate Mass for volunteers, both Catholic and non Catholic, who help Lepers.

Some 80 people attended the service, including priests, nuns, doctors and other staff involved with lepers. Fr Peter Nguyễn Vân Đông, head of the Committee for Charitable and Social Activities (the local Caritas), complained about the lack of human resources available to lepers as well as the discrimination they face in society, not to mention the lack of respect for patients.

The bishop appealed to religious and lay people, urging them to take care of their brothers and sisters. He stressed the inherent difficulties of the action. “We do not always know where they [the lepers] live and it is hard to get in touch with them. However, we must have strong determination to help them.”

In Kontum and Gialai provinces, priests and nuns work with patients and their families. “The presence of Catholic religious means that lepers receive better care that comes from the heart,” a non-Catholic doctor, “this in addition to the hundreds of medical staff and experts working with them.”

According to a report prepared for Caritas in Kontum, many nuns have recently started working with lepers in isolated and remote areas. Many lepers live in such locations and are members of ethnic minorities, and nuns often lack the means to help all of them.

“Lepers are very afraid when they encounter strangers,” a psychologist said. “They have experienced injustice and uncharitable behaviour in public hospitals and public places.”

“We must make an effort to find benefactors who can help patients, providing them with what they need in terms of treatment, including drinking water, so that they can be re-integrated into their communities,” Fr Peter Nguyễn Vân Đông said,

“We have 30,000 Catholic volunteers,” Fr P. Peter Nguyễn Vân Đông. However, “If everyone gave a dollar a month, we could help all the lepers in the diocese, many of whom now have no drugs or medical assistance.”

The bishop of Kontum acknowledged that the number of lepers in his diocese is the highest in the country. He plans to commission a study to provide an accurate map of the local leper situation.

Kontum Caritas also helps patients’ families, but it cannot cope with the problem all alone. It needs more volunteers, doctors and others.

Kontum diocese has 350,000 members, including 90,000 ethnic Kinh and 160,000 from other groups.

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