The small walled town of Fontilles (Alicante) came to be inhabited by 450 leprosy patients in the fifties of the last century. Today there are only a dozen former patients left, such as Abilio Segarra, 78, and María García, 75, who chat quietly in the sun in front of the hospital doors. “My wife died and where was she going to be better,” says the man while looking at the surrounding mountains, with the sea that bathes Denia in the background. Both have spent their entire lives hiding a stigmatized disease despite being cured and not infecting. “If they found out, the mothers would not let their children play with mine,” the woman intervenes. Bacterial infection, associated with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, has been eradicated in Spain. Only 10 or 12 cases are diagnosed a year that have been cured since the middle of the 20th century.
Therefore, the Fontilles private foundation, a world reference and owner of one of the last leprosariums in Europe, has been transforming its facilities opened in 1909 in the Alicante natural area of Vall de Laguart. Originally, they welcomed sick people who, before arriving, lived in caves and remote places in the region. A secluded, well-ventilated place with plenty of water sources was needed. It was called Fontilles. Numerous buildings were erected, pavilions for men, for women, for married people, for Jesuits; a church, a bar, a farm and even a theater. Now, that small town is a large social and health complex, with a nursing home, a rehabilitation hospital for postoperative patients, with chronic or terminal pathologies, and also houses a dozen former leprosy patients, a laboratory specialized in this bacterial infection, and a visitor center.
The complex welcomes between 110 and 125 residents, including the elderly and patients from risk groups, with places arranged with the Administration. However, covid-19 has not managed to enter the old Fontilles sanatorium. Not one deceased and not one contagion among the residents, the foundation’s professionals point out as soon as they have the opportunity. They boast of all the medical work carried out during the pandemic and emphasize that, in addition, they are all already vaccinated. Although it is hidden in the mountains, the sanatorium is close to a very touristy and busy beach area.
The coronavirus has forced Fontilles’ priority to change in its international work. The aid workers who work in India, a country in which 70% of the nearly 230,000 annual cases of leprosy per year in the world are detected, are now dedicated to alleviating the ravages of the coronavirus in the Asian country. Vijay Krishnan, representative of the foundation in India, warns that the real incidence of covid-19 may be “much higher than reported” both in infections and deaths, as a result of carrying out “insufficient tests” and the weakness of the national health system.
This situation may cause an upcoming increase in cases of neglected diseases (leprosy, chagas, dengue …), according to the WHO name, associated with overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions due to poverty, says José Manuel Amorós, CEO of Fontilles. “Active campaigns to detect patients have had to stop. But now the most urgent thing is to collaborate so that the pandemic does not continue to grow ”, he adds.
In the Alicante sanatorium, someone jokes attributing the containment of covid-19 to the three-meter-high and three-kilometer-long wall erected by hand between 1923 and 1929 that surrounds it on its steep slopes. It was a way of trying to silence the virulent protests of the neighboring towns over the opening of the leper colony sponsored by the Jesuit Carlos Ferrís and the lawyer Joaquín Ballester to tackle the serious public health problem detected at the end of the 19th century in the regions of La Marina. and La Safor, explains José Ramón Gómez Echevarría, medical director of Lepra de Fontilles, a non-profit entity that is financed with its activities, with private contributions and concerts with the Administrations.
A situation that was described with his meticulous style by the Alicante writer and great traveler Gabriel Miró in his book Of living (Notes from leprous places), from 1903, points out the doctor, who worked in the eighties in Brazil together with the religious of liberation theology and poet Pedro Casaldáliga. In Manaus, Fontilles has also had to stop its program against leprosy among the indigenous Amazonians due to the restrictions of the pandemic.
Gómez Echevarría points out that “leprosy affects the skin and the nervous system. It is very little contagious. It has to have an intimate and continuous contact with the focus in certain unhealthy situations. If you have a good defensive system there is no problem ”. It is transmitted mainly by speech, by coughing, by droplets that also transmit the coronavirus, much more contagious, and also by direct contact with skin lesions, those very light spots that are insensitive to pain, heat , one of the first symptoms. Nerve damage can lead to stiffness in the limbs.
María and Abilio, whose grandfather also suffered from leprosy, show the deformations that the disease has left in their hands. She has lived in the sanitarium for about 60 years. He went in, went out and came back in. He worked driving a construction truck. “Nobody knew anything and nothing was noticeable,” he says. Along with them is Mari Carmen, who did not get sick but her husband did. When he was widowed, he stayed where he has spent more than 10 years of his life. “They have been here for so long that this is their home,” says the doctor.
A house that is still surrounded by the wall that in various enclaves has collapsed due to the passage of time. Fontilles decided a long time ago not to restore it, but neither to tear it down. Yolanda Sanchis, Communication Director at Fontilles, explains the decision as follows: “It is a symbol of what the stigmatization of leprosy represented and what should not happen again.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.