Earth & Conservation

Where Do Leper Colonies Still Exist?

While the World Health Organization declared Leprosy eliminated, quarantine zones still exist. So where are these remaining leper colonies?

Leprosy has been a fully curable disease since the 1940s and, in September 2016, health officials even introduced an effective vaccine for the malady. Yet hundreds of quarantine sites called leper colonies still exist -- most of them in India. Why is leprosy still such a feared disease worldwide?

As Jules Suzdaltsev in today's Seeker Daily report, it's mostly due to an enduring cultural stigma that has proven much harder to eradicate than the disease itself.

Leprosy is an infectious disease that causes skin lesions and numbness in the extremities, although contrary to popular belief, it does not cause limbs to rot and fall off. (It's actually secondary infections that cause deformities or injuries that require amputation.) Since ancient times, those who suffer from leprosy have been officially ostracized and legally quarantined.

RELATED: What's Causing Florida's Leprosy Cases?

These leper colonies have endured, even into the 21st century, despite the fact that the World Health Organization declared leprosy officially "eliminated" as a public health problem in 2000. In many cases, leprosy victims continue to isolate themselves due to traditional ostracism in their communities. The problem is particularly pronounced in India, where more than 700 informal leper colonies still exist.

In some parts of the country, those who have or once had the disease can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes and abandoned by friends, family and spouses. Much of this stigma comes from discriminatory laws, which dictate that those with leprosy cannot obtain a driver's license or ride on trains. In some jurisdictions, they're even barred from voting.

In the U.S., leprosy has been all but eradicated, but at least one ostensible leper colony still exists. For more than 150 years, the island of Molokai in Hawaii was home to thousands of leprosy victims who gradually built up their own community and culture. As of 2015, six leprosy patients still live on the island, where they have elected to stay.

For more information on the medical and scientific aspects of leprosy, click on over to our related story on sister show DNews.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

WHO: Leprosy

The Guardian: India Rolls Out World's First Leprosy Vaccine as Fight Goes on 'War Footing'

The Atlantic: When the Last Patient Dies