The doctor who defeated leprosy

Updated: Aug 30, 2021 China Daily Print
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Li Huanying (front), an expert in the prevention and treatment of leprosy, leads an oath-taking ceremony to become a member of the Communist Party of China in 2016. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Centenarian made huge sacrifices as she devoted her life to treating those once shunned by society, Wang Ru reports.

In 1964, when Li Huanying went to Hong Kong to meet her parents for the first time in six years, they tried to persuade her to go to the United States with them instead of staying in China on her own. Six years before that meeting, the woman, then 37, concealed from her parents and siblings who had immigrated to the US, the fact that she had given up her well-paid job as an expert in contagious diseases at the World Health Organization and come to China.

She rejected her parents' advice. It was the last time that she saw them as they passed away in the US while she was working in China.

"I was born in Beijing, so I cannot forget my roots. It was just the proper time when I came back in my 30s, since I would get accustomed to my life in China. I wanted to spend the best of my years in my motherland," recalled Li in a CCTV-13 interview program One on One in 2019.

Decades after she came back to China, Li became a renowned expert in the prevention and treatment of leprosy. She celebrated her 100th birthday a few days ago, and was awarded the title of "role model of the times" by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

Born into an intellectual family in 1921, Li was well-educated and admitted to Tongji University as a medical major in 1939. She pursued her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University in the US after enrolling in 1946, and was recommended by her tutor to work at the WHO after graduation in 1950.

Over the next several years, she worked in Indonesia and Myanmar on the prevention and control of contagious diseases, before she came back to China in 1958, and continued her research in the field.

In 1978, Li began work as a researcher specializing in leprosy with the newly established Beijing Tropical Medicine Research Institute affiliated with Beijing Friendship Hospital. The WHO had just developed the multidrug therapy. This entails using three medicines together in a relatively short time to cure leprosy, but due to lack of clinical tests, many experts did not believe in its ability to help patients. Li thought the therapy applicable and pioneered its use in China.

Leprosy is a long-term infection caused by a type of bacteria. Infection can lead to damage to the nerves, which results in disfigurement and disability. The disease has a long history, and since it is infectious without effective medicine, people who had it were often isolated by society in the cruelest manner before 1949.

Li displays her certificate of honor conferring the title of "the most beautiful fighter" by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and other departments in 2019. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"In the past, if one person had this disease, the whole family would be expelled to remote mountainous areas and they had to live in a self-sufficient way by cultivating the waste land and growing crops. Gradually, a village was formed by the deserted people," says Ai Nuo, who used to be a leprosy patient, at a seminar discussing Li's contribution in Beijing on Aug 5.

"At that time, people were even prejudiced against those who worked to control leprosy, not to mention the patients themselves. When we arrived at the village, we always wore two layers of protective suits, lifting the medicines with a pole and sending them to the patients without direct touch," says Yang Jun, former Party secretary of Yunnan's Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Li chose Ai's village in Mengla county, Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, as a pilot area for MDT and arrived there in 1979. Leprosy patients were surprised to find the expert was not afraid of them like others had been, and would talk with them, hold their hands tightly, and even share meals with them.

"As a doctor, I should not be afraid of the disease. I know leprosy is not so infectious, and even if I was infected, I had the confidence to cure myself," Li says in the CCTV-10 interview program Great Masters from 2010.

"The point is, I didn't want to make the patients feel that I was superior. I wanted to cooperate with them, and I had to respect them. They have been discriminated against for a long time, so they must have been sensitive about any behavior suggesting prejudice," she adds. Following her example, many local officials began to get close with the patients.

Dao Jianxin, father of Ai Nuo, was the only one who could speak Mandarin in the village when Li arrived. He used to be an official of Mengla county, but his life changed when he contracted leprosy in the 1960s. "Even when he handed in his Party membership dues, nobody dared to receive the money from his hand," says Ai.

He moved to the leprosy village, and saw his hands and feet fester. His fingers and toes were also affected. But when Li arrived, she moved her laboratory to the village and sent medicine every day and ensured the villagers took it. Dao gradually found hope when the symptoms abated, as did the other villagers.

After 24 months of treatment, the symptoms disappeared in the 47 patients who received MDT.Over the next decade, Li paid frequent visits to the village to check their condition. She also set up another pilot area in Shandong province as a comparison, measuring the effect of MDT.

On April 17, 1990, it was officially announced that leprosy was wiped out in the village, and it was renamed Mannanxing village, which means "rebirth" in the dialect of the Dai ethnic group.

"I have been buried in the soil for 21 years, but you pull me out," an emotional Dao said to Li during the ceremony.

Li (left) greets a woman on a visit to Mannanxing village, Yunnan province, in 1998. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Now, we have built roads, bought cars and built houses. Women of our village can get married to outsiders, and outsiders would like to live in our village. Children of our village are admitted to school in the town like their counterparts from other villages," says Ai.

"We owe all of this to Li. She cured our disease, and enabled us to live like normal people," he adds.

Li continued to do research on the effect of MDT, and expanded the pilot areas to 59 counties in seven provinces. Her statistics show that the patients, after receiving MDT, have a minuscule recurrence rate of 0.03 percent, much lower than the 1 percent standard the WHO set to identify the effectiveness of the therapy.

"Before the 1980s, leprosy patients only took one medicine for four to six years, but they often relapsed. MDT met many objections at the beginning, so Li took a risk trying it. But it has proved effective, greatly speeding up China's process of wiping out leprosy," Yuan Lianchao, an assistant of Li, and also secretary general of China Leprosy Association, tells China Daily.

Behind the achievements are unknown difficulties. Since many villages Li visited are located in the deep mountains with difficult roads, she was injured in several traffic accidents. "Once when she was nearly 70, she was thrown out of the car from the window, resulting in broken ribs and collarbones, and a head injury. But she just said, 'Since I take a car so frequently, it's about time I had an accident.' When the boat she took to a village capsized, she joked to those who saved her, 'Don't worry, I am as fat as a rubber ball so I will not sink'," says Yuan.

With the efforts of Li and other researchers, China has less than 2,000 leprosy patients now compared with more than 500,000 patients when New China was founded in 1949. The incidence rates in more than 98 percent of Chinese counties are lower than 1 in 100,000, according to Yuan.

She never married. "In this way, I can devote myself to the work without worrying about family issues. I believe you should not calculate the price you have paid for the cause you are determined to engage with, or you cannot make much progress. Curing the patients is the happiest thing in my life," says Li.

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