September 23, 2008

Leprosy Colony Wary of Potential Boom in Tourism

KALAUPAPA, Hawaii - In a state known for its tourist destinations, Kalaupapa is sacred ground with a history of disease, suffering and isolation.

Some 8,000 people have died on this remote peninsula since the Hawaiian Kingdom started exiling leprosy patients here in 1866. Many were torn from their families and left to fend for themselves.

Today, visitor interest in Kalaupapa, on the northern edge of Molokai island, is growing. It will likely increase when the Vatican proclaims Father Damien - the 19th century priest who cared for the leprosy patients - a saint, most likely next year.

The two-dozen patients still here are eager to celebrate Kalaupapa's most famous resident, a man who cared for leprosy patients when others shunned them. But therein lies a dilemma.

The patients and their supporters also don't want tourists disturbing the community's privacy.

The attraction for tourists and pilgrims is heightened by the dramatic story behind the Vatican's recognition of a miracle attributed to Damien, who died in 1889 after contracting leprosy himself.

Audrey Toguchi, an 80-year-old Catholic from outside Honolulu, came to Kalaupapa 10 years ago to pray for help at Damien's grave after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Less than a year later, her cancer disappeared. In July, Pope Benedict XVI ruled Damien had helped because there was no scientific explanation for her recovery.

Kalaupapa is isolated, with only 100 residents, including the patients and care workers. The state Department of Health limits visitors to Kalaupapa at 100 per day, and each visitor must obtain a permit. On average, only about 25 make the trip.

Leprosy is spread by direct contact, though it's not easily transmitted. It can cause skin lesions, mangle digits and lead to blindness. It has been curable since the development of sulfone drugs in the 1940s. People treated with drugs aren't contagious. Hawaii did away with the exile policy in 1969.

Originally published by Associated Press.

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