Chinese doctor transforms lives of leprosy patients in isolated villages

Updated: Sep 7, 2021 Xinhua Print
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BEIJING -- On the opposite bank of the Luosuo River that flows through Mengla County in southwest China's Yunnan Province, dozens of secluded villages used to house leprosy patients isolated from the outside world.

In the 1980s, the villages were like forbidden islands for people from the rest of the world. Patients with facial or limb deformities and disabilities could easily scare off any visitors.

The arrival of Li Huanying, a specialized doctor coming all the way from Beijing, brought a glimmer of hope.

In March 1979, Li, who was 58 years old then, paid her first visit to the villages. She started to carefully examine the patients' festering wounds. She even hugged and shook hands with the lone patients.

Leprosy, a chronic infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae, can damage the skin and nervous systems.

Initially, the patients would consciously keep their distance from Li, as back then, the public and even many medical workers dreaded the disease. But, her enthusiasm and determination soon set her apart.

To reach more such remote villages with leprosy patients, Li undertook daring journeys crossing rivers on zip line.

The patients, long plagued by despair and loneliness due to the discrimination among the public, conveyed the news of her arrival to one another shouting -- "There comes a female doctor who is not afraid of leprosy!"

"Leprosy has very limited infectivity and can be prevented and cured. It is not that dreadful. Only by reaching the patients and carrying out on-site research and treatment, can we ease their pain and eliminate the social discrimination they are subjected to," Li said.

She initiated a pilot program and set up a short-course chemotherapy laboratory.

By 1985, all the leprosy patients in the villages were cured with the medicine and therapy she brought with. On April 13, 1990, during the local traditional water-sprinkling festival, also the New Year festival of the Dai ethnic group, the villagers renamed their hometown to "Mannanxing," meaning rebirth in Dai language.

For more than four decades, Li has been a frequent visitor to Guizhou, Sichuan and other remote mountainous areas in China, helping cure many leprosy patients.

Despite all the hardships including car accidents and boat capsizing that left her collarbone and ribs broken, Li remained committed to her career.

Thanks to her unremitting efforts, the number of leprosy patients in China was reduced to no more than 10,000 from 110,000, with an annual recurrence rate of merely 0.03 percent.

In 1994, the World Health Organization shared her treatment methods with the rest of the world.

In 2016, Li was honored with China's first lifetime achievement award for leprosy prevention and control. And in August this year, she was awarded with the title "Role Model of the Times," conferred by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

"I will keep striving for a world without sufferings from leprosy," said the centenarian doctor, who is still working at the Beijing Friendship Hospital.

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