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Yohei Sasakawa
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A Trip to a Leprosarium: Visit to Peru (5) [2012/03/02]
A Trip to a Leprosarium:
Visit to Peru (5)

On January 28, 2012, I got up at 5 AM in order to make a one-hour flight to Pucallpa City, located in Ucayali Region in the Amazon basin. The purpose of my visit was to meet people affected by leprosy and express my solidarity with them. Ucayali is said to be the starting point of the Amazon River, but even at the headwaters it is wider than the mouth of the Tone River in East Japan. The mighty Amazon is fed by the Ucayali and Maranon rivers. Locals bemoan the fact that these two tributaries are not considered part of the Amazon, because if they were it would be the longest river in the world−outstretching the Nile.


The headwaters of the Amazon.

Peru’s neighbor Brazil has the second largest number of leprosy patients in the world after India, and is the only country that has not effectively eliminated leprosy as a public health problem . By contrast, Peru has an extraordinarily low number of leprosy patients, with just 32 registered patients in 2011. However, many parts of the Amazon basin in Peru are inaccessible, so it is quite likely that many cases there have gone undiagnosed.

The director of the Hospital Amazonico de Yarinacocha explained that many patients live far away from the hospital and some have to travel hours by boat to get there. He spoke mournfully of the poverty of the patients, the local government’s lack of awareness about the disease, and the absence of medical specialists .

During my visit, 20 people affected by leprosy gathered together to meet me. People of all ages were present, from their teens onward, but only the elderly showed signs of a disability, an indication of the steady progress that has been made in leprosy treatments.


Meeting people affected by leprosy.

The Amazonico de Yarinacocha Hospital was apparently once visited by the Argentina-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–67). Che fought alongside the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro as he built up his forces in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in Cuba, before ultimately taking control of the country.

As a young student in medical school, Che traveled around South America on a motorcycle and by other means, documenting his experiences in a memoir titled The Motorcycle Diaries, which was later made into a widely acclaimed film. In the movie, Che swims across a river to visit a leprosarium in the Amazon basin in Peru and meets with patients there. He sits among them, treating them as he would anybody else, though at that time, in 1952, people affected by leprosy were still isolated and discrimination ran deep.

The leprosarium featured in the film is San Pablo of Iquitos in Loreto Region, about a four-day trip by boat from the hospital that I visited. Though it is no longer open, I would still very much like to visit it someday.

In addition to visiting the leprosarium, Che Guevara also came to the hospital for two days. I was told there is one person, still alive today, who met Che at the time. Unfortunately, a meeting could not be arranged because he lives in a remote region.

Che Guevara’s meetings with people affected by leprosy no doubt touched him deeply and had a formative influence on his worldview.

I hope I have a chance this year to visit facilities in Russia, Ukraine, central Asia, Romania, Yemen, and other countries, and offer words of encouragement to the patients there.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 09:32 | LEPROSY | URL | comment(0)