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Prejudice key foe in battle with leprosy

Nineteen-year-old Bun Sam Oun says she has a “new life” after being cured of leprosy, but nonetheless still has regrets.

“My eye is blind due to leprosy,” Sam Oun, whose hand was also debilitated by the disease, said.

“I had leprosy symptoms, but my parents sent me to hospital too late. People in the village discriminate against me, so I do not want to go to school. I am embarrassed; they look down me.”

Recounting her experiences at an event on World Leprosy Day at Phnom Penh’s Kien Khleang National Rehabilitation Center for the Disabled, Sam Oun described how she was infected by her parents, also lepers, then taken to hospital too late to save her hand and eye, before finally being cured thanks to an initiative by Geneva-based CIOMAL – a Christian charity linked to the nearly 1,000-year-old Order of Malta that focuses on helping lepers.

“I had a new life when I was cured,” she said. “And then I joined the campaign in the village to stop discrimination against lepers. The disease can be cured. I also encourage villagers [with symptoms] to hurry to hospital.

If not, they will be disabled like me.”  

Moa Tan Eang, director of the National Center for Tuberculosis and Leprosy Control, said there had been 576 cases of leprosy —30 of them in children — in 2012, up about six per cent overall from 2011, and up 13 per cent among children.  

“This disease can cause disabilities in the eyes, hands and legs if people do not hurry to seek health-care services,” he said, adding that the educat-ion campaign would continue in the coming year.

“There is no charge [in rural areas], so please, all those with leprosy, come to the hospital.”

Ros Reun, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said the government was concerned by widespread misconceptions about leprosy, and by the isolation in which many lepers and their families lived.

“People confuse leprosy with a disease contracted at birth, that can’t be cured and is a kind of curse by God,” Reun said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sen David at david.sen@phnompenhpost.com

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