Catholic Church can help rid world of leprosy, says veteran Polish aid worker

Helena Pyz, a Polish doctor who has worked in India since 1989, is pictured in July 2022 examining a child at the Jeevodaya Center in Raipur, India. Founded in 1969 by a Polish priest and woman religious, the center runs walk-in clinics and health camps for victims of leprosy, as well as a free all-year boarding school for 450 children, staffed and supported by former sufferers. (OSV News photo/Adam Rostkowski, courtesy Jeevodaya Mission Secretariat)

(OSV News) – The age-old curse of leprosy can be finally wiped out if church leaders join others worldwide in a greater commitment against it, according to a veteran Polish Catholic doctor and missionary.

"Here in India, there've been fewer cases recently and a reduced social fear of infection – it's my greatest hope we'll eliminate leprosy once and for all in the not too distant future," said Helena Pyz, a medical doctor and lay missionary who for 35 years has helped those suffering from leprosy, or "Hansen's disease."

"Yet while there are places where victims can count on Catholic Church help, there's little knowledge or awareness of leprosy among ordinary Catholics – just the occasional media article or parish information campaign," Pyz said.

The 75-year-old lay Catholic spoke from her center at Raipur, India's oldest rehabilitation facility, as charities and aid organizations marked World Leprosy Day Jan. 28.

The doctor's own life was not easy. As a 10-year-old, she suffered from polio, and since then had trouble walking and had to use a wheelchair. Due to her operations, she had to take a break from school several times. Fascinated by Jasna Góra, the famous Polish sanctuary of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Pyz – in her own account – understood during one of many pilgrimages to the shrine that God was inviting her to dedicate her medical vocation to him. She professed her vows as a member of Poland's lay Primate Wyszynski Institute.

In an OSV News interview, she said leprosy infections had dropped in India during the 2020-2022 coronavirus pandemic, when movement was restricted, adding that the disease could be treated effectively if diagnosed early.

However, people suffering its visible effects still faced "total rejection," Pyz said, while those impaired by the disease received just $4.20 monthly from state funds and had seen no improvement in their prospects.

"We provide medical help in some of the larger leper colonies, and can offer better chances to affected children with school places and accommodation," said the Warsaw-born Pyz.

"But there's still a terrible social stigma attached to leprosy here, especially given the caste system. Those infected or handicapped, with missing or misshapen limbs or facial marks, have to live in their own ghettos – most often on the outskirts of towns where they can at least obtain food and clothing for survival," she said.

Founded in 1969 by a Polish member of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, or Pallottines, Fr. Adam Wisniewski (1913-1987), and Sr. Barbara Birczynska (1927-2010), from the Polish Sisters of St. Michael the Archangel, Pyz's Jeevodaya Center (Jeevodaya means Dawn of Life in Sanskrit) runs walk-in clinics and health camps for those with leprosy, as well as a free all-year boarding school for 450 children, staffed and supported by former sufferers.

The center, one of around 600 operated by the Catholic Church worldwide, also runs an outpatient clinic in Kutela, on the Chhattisgarh-Odisha state border, and deploys funds collected by a mission secretariat of the Primate Wyszynski Institute in Warsaw.

In an interview with OSV News, Pyz said she relies on her Polish state pension, receiving no personal earnings for her work, and was pleased with the "integration and normality" achieved by her center in its 55-year existence.

However, she added that the Hindu-nationalist government of landlocked Chhattisgarh, India's ninth largest state, had tolerated "many unfriendly acts" toward the small Christian minority, and said she had had to mobilize diplomatic pressure when denied a visa extension by local officials.

"I still have to renew the visa each year, at considerable cost, and I never know if I'll receive it – or get a letter instead giving me four days to quit the country," said the veteran charity worker, known locally as "Mami."

"Our status as a religious minority guarantees protection – and police guarded our church services at Christmas and warned potential troublemakers. Without this, I don't know how our medical, educational and charitable work would be treated," Pyz said.

World Leprosy Day, observed annually since 1954 on the last Sunday of January, highlights the continued prevalence of one of the world's oldest recorded diseases, which targets the skin, peripheral nerves, mucous membranes and eyes of sufferers.

Up to 3 million people are believed disabled worldwide by the disease, 70% in India, and over 200,000 new infections are recorded each year across 120 countries.

Leprosy cases have decreased over the last two decades, according to the World Health Organization, although Indonesia and Brazil also report over 10,000 new infections annually, with over 1,000 registered in 13 other Asian and African countries.

Pyz said it was often forgotten that European countries, from Norway to Greece, also were affected by leprosy up to the 1950s, adding that some poorer countries still offered little or no care for victims.

She said she hoped Chhattisgarh state, which has a population of 30 million, would succeed in reducing infections to just 50 per year, helped by appeals and prayers from the pope and other church leaders.

"The backing of my own church has given me enormous inspiration and strength –everything I do here, the help I can still provide, is all thanks to God," said Pyz, who was a top activist with Poland's Solidarity union movement and was practicing medicine in Poland before traveling to India in 1989 after the death of Fr. Wisniewski.

"At the beginning, I simply saw the needs and declared my willingness to help. Today, I'm well treated by most locals, still feel needed as a source of advice and direction, and am certain God still wants to keep and sustain me here."

In a Jan. 28 joint message for World Leprosy Day, WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and WHO’s goodwill ambassador for leprosy elimination, Yohei Sasakawa, said leprosy had been curable with multidrug therapy for more than 30 years, and reiterated the aims of the WHO's 2021-2030 Global Leprosy Strategy to eliminate the disease worldwide.

"To achieve a world free of leprosy and the problems it causes, however, medical interventions are not enough. As we move towards interruption of transmission and elimination of leprosy, we must also address the social and psychological aspects of the disease," the message said.



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