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Leper hospital given new lease of life

Colette Lauper had a brainwave while volunteering at a leper hospital in India (Colette Lauper) Colette Lauper

A Swiss woman has transformed part of an Indian leprosy hospital into a baby ward for poor mothers.

This content was published on May 15, 2004 - 13:55

Colette Lauper said she encountered widespread prejudice about leprosy, a disease which can lead to severe disfigurement.

Lauper, the former owner of a recruitment agency in canton Bern, decided it was time for a change after repeated bouts of ill health.

“I was nervous and lacking in motivation and I decided enough was enough,” she told swissinfo.

When she sold her business in 2000, she had no other plans but to write her autobiography – until a book came to mind that she had read many years earlier.

“I read this book when I was 20 about a leprosy station in India,” she recalls. “And I was so fascinated by the passion and love in this book that I thought ‘one day when I have time, I’ll go too’.”

Lauper finally arrived in the town of Hubli in southwestern India in 2002, where she began working in a leprosy hospital.

“I’m not a nurse but I did everything there,” she recalls. “I cleaned the tables and beds and I put new bandages on the patients.”

Brainwave

It was during her stay that Lauper felt she wanted to do more to help the local community. She had a brainwave when she noticed that some wards at the hospital were empty.

“There were not enough patients because of the success of the leprosy programme during the last 20 or 30 years,” she explains. “One day I asked the director about the idea of setting up a baby ward, which would open up the hospital to other patients.”

With the hospital’s director on her side, Lauper returned home and approached the Swiss charity, Leprosy Relief Emmaus, in Bern for financial support.

Two months later, with the backing of the board, she set to work.

“I called every hospital and doctor and I found a lot of equipment... all you need to start a maternity ward. The container left Europe in November 2002 and the first baby was born in Hubli in February last year,” she said.

To date, more than 28 children have been born at the facility since it opened a year ago.

The ward is used by the very poor, who cannot afford to have their babies in public hospitals. They pay a fee of about SFr20 ($16). Indian public hospitals can charge up to four times more.

Stigma

Lauper found that many locals were prejudiced against leprosy.

“At the start it was hard because most people said ‘I won’t go for my delivery in a leprosy hospital’ because in India, leprosy is a dirty sickness,” she explains. “But every month more and more babies are born there.”

Lauper is now concentrating on another project, based in Cameroon, this time trying to ease the lives of sufferers of Buruli ulcers - an illness that starts as a harmless swelling but which can lead to severe malformations and loss of limbs.

Most of the sufferers are women and children who live near rivers or wetlands.

“With Swiss money, we’ve built two new operating rooms and a school in this hospital. Sometimes children have to stay in the hospital for ten months and often they have nothing to do,” she said.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

Key facts

More than 500,000 people in 110 countries suffer from leprosy.
This curable disease can lead to severe disfigurement.
Buruli ulcers are endemic in more than 30 countries in Africa, South American and the West Pacific.
It is not understood exactly how the disease is transmitted.

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In brief

Colette Lauper decided to change her life in her early 40s.

She sold her business and went to India to work in a leprosy hospital.

While there, she had the idea of setting up a baby ward for general patients in a closed ward.

The ward opened in February 2003 and more than 28 children have been born there.

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