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What Leprosy Can Teach Us About COVID-19 Crisis : Goats and Soda : NPR

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Morris Koll, grandfather of NPR correspondent Pam Fessler‘s husband, enlisted in the U.

toggle caption Courtesy of the Koll family Morris Koll, grandfather of NPR correspondent Pam Fessler‘s husband, enlisted in the U.

In 1935, public health authorities took him to the national leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.

Right: A treatment room at the facility is depicted on the cover of Fessler’s new book, Carville’s Cure.

In 1998, NPR correspondent Pam Fessler learned a family secret that had been covered up for 63 years: Her husband’s grandfather had leprosy.

Her father-in-law revealed that he had returned from school one day to discover that his dad had simply disappeared, taken by public health authorities from their home in New York to the national leprosarium of the United States in Carville, Louisiana.

Now, the disease is called by the less stigmatizing name of Hansen‘s in honor of the scientist who discovered the bacterium that causes it.

These days, 250,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, mostly in India, Brazil and Indonesia, with about 200 in the United States.

The story of Carville, which was founded as the Louisiana Leper home in 1894, gave Fessler a window into the evolution of this disease.

Long Hansen’s Disease Center was moved to Baton Rouge in the late 1990s, though the Carville location itself continued to house patients until 2015.

We spoke to Fessler about her newly published book, Carville’s Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice and the relevance this story holds today.

At the turn of the 20th century, a number of doctors correctly called Hansen’s one of the least contagious of all infectious diseases, with malaria, smallpox and yellow fever posing more serious and widespread threats.

Their fears about contagion were then amplified by the public’s anxiety that rising numbers of immigrants would bring leprosy with them.

All those factors drove public pressure to isolate people with the disease from society and to the formation of the hospital at Carville, where many people remained separated from their families for the rest of their lives.

By contrast, we know that COVID-19 is extremely contagious, and yet many people are choosing not to follow public health guidelines.

The turn of the century was a time of xenophobia with widespread fear that Asian immigrants were going to take away American jobs.

They were also worried that Asian immigrants would bring with them a disease they called the ‘Oriental leprosy.

Sister Hilary Ross takes photos documenting a patient‘s treatment progress in the infirmary at the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, circa 1950.

The photo was taken by Johnny Harmon, a patient with leprosy, for The Star — a magazine for the residents at Carville.

‘ And there are many cases of Asian Americans being shouted at and accused of causing and bringing COVID to the United States.

Although Carville operated in the midst of the Jim Crow South, you say the patients formed a community that in some ways was a model of diversity.

Patients at Carville were a diverse group — Black, white, Asian and Latino; rich and poor.

Isolated and stigmatized because of their leprosy, they formed a tightknit community.

National Hansen‘s Disease Museum hide caption .

toggle caption National Hansen‘s Disease Museum .

And we see this with COVID, too, in all these wonderful health-care workers and communities trying to help people with the illness.