In a world where the Maldives is often imagined as a castaway paradise, the story of how this island nation confronted the scourge of leprosy may not be a well-known narrative. But for the locals, the tale of how leprosy was dealt with until the discovery of a cure is a part of their history that they've carried with them through generations.
The journey back in time reveals that leprosy, or Hansen's disease, found its way to the Maldives when the islands were still being explored through shipwrecks and maritime misadventures. According to Maldivian folklore, the first instances of leprosy in the country can be traced back to shipwrecked slaves from a French vessel that ran aground around 300 years ago.
Back in those days, leprosy was shrouded in a profound taboo, causing the islanders to resort to isolating those afflicted by the disease. This isolation, however, was not a mere seclusion—it often involved building coral stone houses where leprosy patients were left to their own devices, isolated from the rest of society until nature took its inevitable course.
Stories passed down through generations tell of the first known cases of leprosy in Villingili, leading the islanders to relocate the afflicted men to Funadhoo and the women to Havodda in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, where they faced lifelong quarantine. It's a chilling reminder that the first glimmers of hope for treating leprosy were not seen until the 1950s.
Fast forward to the present day, and cases of leprosy have become exceedingly rare, mostly relegated to the realm of folklore, bedtime tales, or dinner table conversations. Yet, the remnants of this harrowing history linger in the form of coral houses that stand as silent witnesses to the nightmare that was leprosy, a disease that spelt a life sentence of isolation.
Despite the haunting echoes of history, the Maldives has achieved a remarkable feat. After enduring the struggles and pain associated with leprosy, the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially recognized the Maldives as the first country to stop the spread of this devastating disease.
While leprosy was once a common affliction in the Maldives, as evident from the countless stories passed down through the ages, the Ministry of Health of the Maldives has proudly declared that, by 2023, 178 islands in the country are officially free of leprosy. This remarkable achievement marks the closing chapter of a dark era and opens the door to a brighter future for the Maldives and its people.