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Likoma Island

Lake Nyasa, Nyasaland (currently Lake Nyasa, Malawi)


"The Treatment of Leprosy", by Miss Alice Simpkin, S.R.N., F.B.C.N. British Journal of Nursing, Dec 1928: 313-4.

“Lake Nyasa is nearly 300 miles long ; it is one of the chain of lakes lying in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa which runs from the Red Sea in the north to the Zambesi in the south. In Lake Nyasa, about 12 degrees south of the Equator, lies Likoma Island: on a secluded promontory of this island a little group of lepers voluntarily went to live in 1923, separated from their homes and friends. They submitted themselves to what they knew would be a long, tedious, and at times a painful course of treatment. Their rocky promontory is narrow, and shut off from the nearest village by a hill; its name means “the haunt of the gull”; it is swept by all the winds of heaven, and every nook is flooded with tropical sunshine. Lake Nyasa is ever changing its colour, and not its colour only, for sometimes it is perfectly calm and still, and at others it is lashed into fury by the south-west wind.

The morning that these lepers were taken across the bay that separates the promontory from the part of the island where the Universities’ Mission has a general hospital the lake was rather rough ; two journeys had to be made in the small dug-out canoe to transport the little group of five patients with their cooking-pots, food, and a box containing drugs and dressings, These five soon increased to twelve – six men and six women - and there they have lived for these six years in simple mud huts.

A doctor sees the patients from time to time, and three times a week a nurse has visited them and given them injections of various preparations, all of which were made from the seed of a Hydnocarpus tree, which grows in Burmah and India. This nut has been known to the Chinese for hundreds of years as a remedy for leprosy, and is described in their ancient pharmacopoeias.

A beginning was made at our settlement with 0l. chaul moograe; one formula was given intramuscularly, another intravenously. Then came Moogrol, an ethyl ester of the same oil, prepared by Messrs. Burroughs, Wellcome & Co., and given intravenously. Some two years later we obtained the Hydnocarpus oil direct from India, and gave it by means OY infiltration, a slow and painful process. Next we prepared our own ethyl esters from the crude oil; this preparation did not cause the painful swellings that the earlier preparations did.

In June, 1927, we received the first instalment of Alepol, a sodium hydnocarate; this, too, is prepared from the Hydnocarpus bean, and it does not produce the disagreeable symptoms of pain, swelling, irritating cough, and blocking of the veins.

In May, 1928, after examining many smears made from the nasal passages and from clippings of the old skin lesions, four of these lepers were pronounced cured, and have returned to their homes and families. These patients were not discharged until the smears had been negative for eighteen months or two years. They are to report in three months’ time to be tested again.

Fresh air, sunshine, clean and happy surroundings, and adequate employment have much to do with the curing of lepers. The last is not easy to arrange for on a small piece of ground, but these lepers have hoed every available bit of soil, and planted cassava, beans, ground-nuts, pumpkins and tomatoes in the wet season. They also have a small canoe and a fishing-net, but at present they are deterred from doing much fishing by an enormous crocodile that will bask on their rocks, and is never there when anyone goes over with a rifle to try to shoot it.

One man has learnt to read and write - of course, his own Bantu dialect - in less than a year, taught by one of the lepers who acts as leader and head of the little band.

It is important in the early days of a leper’s treatment to eliminate other diseases ; they nearly all have ankylostomiasis, bilharzia, or tertiary yaws ; some have all three. The fact that some have now returned to their homes and families, well and happy, is encouraging others to come forward and ask to be taken into the little settlement at Likoma.

The original mud huts have now been replaced by buildings of sun-dried brick ; each patient has his or her own little room, and there is a good verandah for their common use. There is one block for the men and one for the women about five minutes’ walk apart; the path between them skirts the lake and has a lovely view. A little house of Prayer and Praise is the witness that the language of the Good Samaritan has borne practical fruit.”

Textual and historical references to this leprosarium

This entry was last updated, September 14, 2006.

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