Curing Culion, the Island of the Living Dead

I’ve been going to Culion often lately. To inspect our Build site over in a remote barangay called De Carabao. Habitat Philippines is constructing 160 housing units there right now, plus 2 school buildings and a water system, dedicated to our indigent community of Tagbanuas who were badly hit by Typhoon Haiyan in November of 2013.

Culion has remained a mysterious island seldom visited by the outside world, as a result of its bad reputation as a former leper colony. During the early 1900s, Culion was known as the Island of the Living Dead, or the Island of No Return, in reference to its huge leper population – the largest in the world then. Thus Culion became the world’s foremost research center for Hansen’s Disease, aka the dreaded leprosy.

Culion, Island of the Living Dead (courtesy of ironwulf.net)

Its history dates back to 1902, when the American Forces occupying the Philippines decided to address the problem in the country, and at the same time, help in the worldwide campaign to eradicate the scourge that was leprosy. There were an estimated 4,000 leper cases in the country, and some 1,200 more were expected to develop every year. Decades earlier, Japan had sent more than a hundred of its leper patients to the Philippines, knowing the Catholic Church’s interest in caring for the sick.

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At the Leper Museum.

In 1906, the first 370 patients from Cebu were brought to Culion by 2 US Coastguard ships. These 2 ships would make their rounds around the country to round up lepers, in an effort to segregate them and eradicate leprosy in the country. By 1931, the leprosarium had ballooned to 16,138 patients, far higher than the estimated 4,000. The leper colony would have its own municipal government, complete with a police force, a civil court system composed of fellow lepers, a market, a school, and a church. Most of them worked in fishing and agriculture, and they had their own currency as well.

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Culion money was different from the rest of the islands. courtesy of youtube.com)

By mid-1930s however, the leper population started to diminish. With the discovery of new uses of chaulmoogra oil (found in India) and better treatment for leprosy, the need to segregate them in Culion was no longer deemed necessary. By the 80s, the leper population had dwindled to 500. Until finally, leprosy care and management for the Culion Sanatorium would be close to nil.

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The Sanatorium. courtesy of Culion Sanatorium and General Hospital)

In 1988, Project Elisa (short for Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assays) was initiated to collect blood samples of all the families in Culion in order to determine leprosy traces. Five years passed, and in 1992, Culion was finally declared completely cleared of leprosy. The world is indebted to the island-town of Culion, as well as its many heroes – Governor General Leonard Wood, who spearheaded the Leprosy eradication movement; Dr Charles De May, its pioneer physician; and the Congregation of the Sisters of St Paul, the original group of nuns who took on the daunting task of caring for the patients – for the crucial inroads in leprosy research, care and management. Physicians from China, Japan and from across the globe benefitted from the critical work done in Culion for the advancement of leprosy management.

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The Sanatorium: Combattng Leprosy worldwide.

It has been more than 2 decades since the disease has been tamed, but the stigma – and the images of missing fingers, of deformed faces, of slow dismal death – have remained. It is the more difficult, more challenging thing to erase, although the active participation of both the Culion and Coron communities is slowly stemming the tide.

Visit Culion. You’ll be amazed with its many unique offerings.

(Pics courtesy of nomadicexperience.com, slsmy.com, route63travels.com, thedailyposh.com, lakwatsera.com, marketmanila.com and cbholganza)

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6 comments

  1. A fascinating post, Charlie.
    I think it’s fair to see that many Filipinos are very superstitious and may unreasonably be dissuaded from visiting as I recall that when I mentioned in Manila that I was visiting Seqijor, most people were horrified!

    Liked by 1 person

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