Medical Developments and Patient Unrest in the Leprosy Asylum, 1860 to 1940
Organized protest by handicapped persons (which includes leprosy patients with developed deformities) is not uncommon nowadays. Protest can take various forms, such as petitioning the state for initiating or implementing rehabilitation programmes (in Salem district leprosy patients with deformities have a lobby of their own); more assertive forms include demonstration in public places and courting arrest. Such efforts aim at social reintegration of the handicapped. In the case of leprosy, such visible and public demonstrations would have been unthinkable in the past, because of strong public prejudice regarding leprosy, also because of low morale of patients, many of whom internalized age-old myths about leprosy.
Today a transformed situation exists with regard to leprosy. A brief medical description is useful here. Medicine now recognizes leprosy as a chronic bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae. It attacks mainly the superficial tissues, the skin and the peripheral nerves. If untreated it can result in physical deformity, such as muscular weakness and decay, nose collapse and ulceration. With the introduction of the Multi-Drug therapy in India since the mid-80s, timely treatment can ensure a complete cure within a few months, and deformities can be prevented.1 The National Leprosy Eradication Programme launched in 1986 aims at the total eradication of leprosy from India by the year 2000. By 1991, about 6 million patients had been discharged after treatment, and there remained an estimated 2.5 milliojv pajients suffering from leprosy.2 Patients treated in the early stages bore no scars and they could return unnoticed to their parent communities. Those who were treated at a much later stage harbour no bacilli, but they must live with the telltale deformities, which are the stock material of stereotypes of leprosy (though in reality only a
Department of English, College for Vocational Studies, Delhi University.
Social Scientist, Vol. 24, Nos. 4-6, April-June 1996