Leprosy Is Curable
Henry Nalaielua with one of his paintings at an art show in 2002.
Photo: Valerie Monson
Leprosy — now also known as Hansen’s disease — is caused by a bacteria that was first identified in 1873 by Dr. Gerhard Hansen of Norway. The treatment that led to the cure of leprosy – a sulfone drug called promin — was discovered in 1941 at the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.
The sulfone medicine was first introduced to Kalaupapa in 1946.
A small number of people at Kalaupapa were asked to try this new drug. Many people at Kalaupapa had heard of the positive effects that promin was having on people at Carville through Carville’s monthly publication, The Star, and were anxious to have the medicine made available to them.
When the medicine finally arrived, the injections of promin dramatically improved the health of many people at Kalaupapa — and gave them hope for what used to be an uncertain future. A doctor who had not visited Kalaupapa for some time was overwhelmed with the community’s renewed zest for life that he saw when he came back after people had been receiving the medicine.
Henry Nalaielua, who had been taken from his family in 1936 when he was just 10 years old and sent to Kalaupapa five years later, was one of the first people who was allowed to leave Kalaupapa because, after a series of medical tests, he was found to be cured. He still remembers calling his mother on that day in 1949 to pick him up in Honolulu. It would be the first time they would see each other in 13 years.
“I walked out the gate with my suitcase, I went in the car,” Nalaielua told The Maui News reporter Valerie Monson in an interview at his home. “I sat in the car in the back with her and all she did was cry. She couldn’t believe I was free.”
Like Nalaielua, many others at Kalaupapa who arrived in the 1930s and 1940s, thought they only had a few years to live. Thanks to the sulfone drugs, many went on to live very long — and accomplished — lives. In fact, today the oldest resident at Kalaupapa, retired welder John Arruda, is 98 years old, is still living on his own and still driving his pickup.
Nalaielua, a talented musician and artist, eventually moved back to Kalaupapa because it had become home. However, he could come and go as he pleased. He grew to love traveling and visited many places on the US Continent and in Europe. He worked as a policeman, a carpenter and a tour driver at Kalaupapa for Damien Tours. He served on the Board of Health for the State of Hawaii and was on the Board of Directors for Na Pu`uwai Native Hawaiian Health Systems. He wrote his life story, “No Footprints in the Sand.”
The medicine to treat leprosy has continued to improve over the years. Today, most people need drug therapy for a year or less to be completely cured. While taking the medicine, individuals can continue their normal lives, living at home with their families and holding down jobs. There is no need for isolation. There should be no worry of disability.
Olivia Breitha in her comfortable home. Olivia died in 2006.
Photo: ©Valerie Monson
The World Health Organization makes the medicine available to anyone who needs it. Some countries still have a number of citizens affected by leprosy because of limited health care facilities in more remote or developing areas, making it difficult for some people to get to those clinics. In places where the public lacks an understanding of the realities of the disease, people newly diagnosed with leprosy might not seek treatment for fear of being rejected by family or friends.