A cast around his left leg reminds 23-year-old Ngin Sothea that leprosy ulceration, from which he has been suffering for almost 10 years, has eaten away parts of his foot. He uses crutches to walk around Kien Khleang National Rehabilitation Center in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district in Chroy Changvar commune.
“I noticed swelling in my foot and was brought to a hospital in Siem Reap,” Mr. Sothea said recounting the moment a decade ago when doctors diagnosed him with leprosy. He was immediately transferred to Kien Khleang, the country’s only hospital specializing in leprosy treatment.
Mr. Sothea was among dozens of other leprosy patients who on Friday marked International World Leprosy Day alongside officials from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Before a tour of the center, Ros Roeun, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said there is still a lot of social stigma surrounding leprosy in Cambodia.
“Leprosy was confused as a contagious, incurable [disease] or as a punishment by God. This leads to the discrimination of leprosy affected persons within their communities and makes it difficult for them to start a family,” he said outside the center, which is equipped with 50 beds.
Due to social stigma and the belief that leprosy patients have no future due to the disfigurement caused by the disease, not everyone seeks treatment, said So Visal, a public health officer for the Order of Malta’s International Committee, which finances the Kien Khleang center.
“In Kompong Cham, there is still a leper village, where people go to hide themselves from their communities,” he said.
The order’s head of mission, Harald Schmid de Gruneck, said that with their annual budget of $700,000, many leprosy patients in Cambodia are now diagnosed at an early stage.
Had Mr. Sothea not been diagnosed at an early stage, he could have lost larger parts of his legs and fingers due to the disease, which attacks the nervous system.
“With the early detection and prevention center and outreach programs, we find the cases earlier, so the number of patients is actually going up because patients seek treatment,” Mr. Schmid de Gruneck said, adding that in 2012, there were about 400 new cases of leprosy detected in Cambodia.
“The socioeconomic program is very important, and we try to rehabilitate the patients by giving them microloans and teaching them computer skills,” Mr. Schmid de Gruneck said.
By providing scholarships, young leprosy patients are also given some hope, like Mr. Sothea, who is interested in computers and speaks fluent English.
“Next year maybe, if I get one of the scholarships, I want to move out from my uncle’s house and study I.T. in Phnom Penh,” Mr. Sothea said.