Faces of courage
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Faces of courage

Now in its 50th year, the Phud Hong Leper Foundation continues to support patients

Faces of courage
(Photos by Jetjaras Na Ranong)

Si Leeya knew he had fallen prey to leprosy at the age of 15. Overwhelmed by fear of social stigma, he decided to run away from home.

"I lived in a leper colony in Chiang Mai and finally ended up here," the now 90-year-old recalled. A native of Songkhla province, Si is now the oldest patient at Phud Hong Leper Colony. Located in Ron Phibun district of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, the colony was established in 1974 as a shelter for lepers to live their lives without fear and social bias.

"I don't want to live outside due to my poor health. I am taken care of well here," he said.

Si is one of the 95 lepers currently living in Phud Hong Leper Colony -- a place where no one wants to enter and no patients want to leave. Besides leprosy patients, the colony also houses over 200 family members struggling to make ends meet.

For 50 years, Phud Hong Leper Colony has received assistance and support -- in the form of finances and other life necessities -- from the Phud Hong Lepers Foundation. Established in 1974 by the Bangkok Post newspaper, the foundation back then took care of 255 lepers who were slowly dying from starvation due to the government's budget cuts.

Over the past 50 years, the foundation has built two hospital wards, a kindergarten for lepers' children and a multi-purpose building.

Si Leeya, the oldest patient at Phud Hong Leper Colony. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Navigating deteriorating health and stigma

Each year, lepers die inside the colony, with four deaths reported last year. Almost all residents also suffer from non-communicable illnesses such as diabetes, high blood cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease and chronic wounds, said Phud Hong's caregiver Prakaipruk Homprakob.

"For patients here, leprosy symptoms do not get worse. It's not contagious as the condition is kept under control through medication. But most patients are old and are battling chronic diseases," said Prakaipruk, who oversees the colony's medical wards. The now 44-year-old is herself a leper -- the youngest in the colony.

Right now, Phud Hong Leper Colony has two hospital wards where only three patients with no family members stay for medical care. Si is one of these three.

According to Prakaipruk, despite better access to public health services and treatments for lepers, social discrimination and bias still exists in society when it comes to the disease.

"Leprosy patients do not want to go outside. Some don't even dare to go to the local health centre or a market for fear of being shunned and treated badly. There are still people outside who avoid getting close to lepers for fear of being infected. This is a total misbelief, if not a bias, that hasn't been resolved," said Prakaipruk.

Choy Saetang. Jetjaras Na Ranong

The legacy of leprosy

Choy Saetang was diagnosed with leprosy when he was only 14 years old. "I got the disease from my mother," said the now 84-year-old.

His mother had lived and died inside Phud Hong Leper Colony. Choy said when he first knew he was infected, he felt as if life was coming to a dead end.

"I felt so sad and depressed," he recalled. "I couldn't eat and I couldn't sleep. The diagnosis came out of the blue and everything then turned upside down."

Choy said he first felt numbness on his shins and then it spread all over the legs. "You won't feel anything even if your legs catch fire. If you can still feel your legs, that's not leprosy."

Years later, Choy was told there was a place called Phud Hong Leper Colony in Nakhon Si Thammarat where lepers can live without fear and social injustice. A native of Kanchanaburi, Choy decided to relocate.

Despite the disease, life had to go on. Choy chose to work outside as a construction foreman. Due to work-related accidents a decade ago, he had one of his legs amputated and one of his eyes removed. Now he can no longer work.

"Today I'm thankful for my wife who takes care of me and cooks meals, and also for the [Phud Hong Lepers] Foundation which is helping us after all these years," Choy said.

Ubon Raksasri. Jetjaras Na Ranong

No legs, no problem

At only 12 years of age, Ubon Raksasri was left alone at school after everyone knew she had leprosy.

"My friends stopped playing with me. And finally my teacher told me to leave school," Ubon recalled.

The now 84-year-old moved to Phud Hong Leper Colony at 13 -- a place she calls home despite the poor living standards. But at least inside the colony she is free from social discrimination and hatred.

"When I was first diagnosed, I lived in a nearby hospital in Nakhon Si Thammarat. But back then it was wartime and living there was quite inconvenient. So I moved to the colony," she said.

Ubon admitted that she wanted to end her life when she first learned she had leprosy. No one in the family got infected -- not even any of her nine siblings -- so she kept asking herself: "Why me?" The disease deformed her hands and eventually took her left leg.

From a hopeless little girl, Ubon now lives in high spirits. Despite disabilities and chronic diseases including diabetes, hypertension and gastroesophageal reflux disease, her eyes are still full of hope. Today Ubon wears a prosthetic leg, enabling her to walk and live her life comfortably. Living by herself, she can now travel short distances on her trolley.

"The deformity is only skin deep. The most important thing is inside. Purity in your heart and your mind actually defines who you truly are," Ubon said.

Info for donations

Name of organisation:Phud Hong Leper Foundation

Address: Bangkok Post Building, 136 Na Ranong Road, Klong Toey, Bangkok 10110

Call: 081-900-4922 (Kusuma Bekenn)

Bank transfer:

Account Name: Phud Hong Leper Foundation, Account No.218-0-13367-6, Bangkok Bank, Sunthorn Kosa Branch, Klong Toey, Bangkok

Cheque: Send cheques payable to Phud Hong Leper Foundation, attn: Kusuma Bekenn, Phud Hong Lepers Foundation, Bangkok Post Building, 136 Na Ranong, Klong Toey, Bangkok 10110

Leprosy in Thailand

There were 186 registered leprosy patients in the country as of December 2022.

Of the 186 patients, 180 are suffering from multibacillary leprosy (MB) which means patients have positive smears at any site on the body. The rest are suffering from paucibacillary leprosy (PB) which means negative smears at all sites.

The prevalence rate is 0.03 per 10,000 population.

73 new cases of leprosy were reported in 2022 — equivalent to 0.01 per 10,000 population.

In Thailand, the number of newly diagnosed cases is significantly declining.

Statistics for 2022 are from the Ratchapracha Samasai Institute, the Department of Disease Control, the Ministry of Public Health.

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