As soon as I landed in Saigon, I found a volunteer group on Facebook, “Saigon Helping Hands”. They are a Saigon based group of volunteers who do lots of different events and fundraisers in the city. They are mostly young people who work and like to volunteer in their free time.We met at 7.30am at the zoo and set off from there. I was a bit surprised to learn it was a 90min drive into the countryside since all the previous info was in Vietnamese !!! The weather was better than it has been since I got here though, and the drive was gorgeous.
We arrived at around 9 at Ben San Leprosy Village. I was unaware, before doing this, that leprosy was even still such a big problem. I did a little research and here are a few things I learned.
-Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by a bacillus.
-Official figures show that more than 213, 000 people mainly in Asia and Africa are infected, with approximately 249, 000 new cases reported in 2008.
-M. leprae multiplies very slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about five years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.
-Leprosy is not highly infectious. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.
-Untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) remain the key elements in eliminating the disease as a public health concern.
-Body parts can become numb or diseased as a result of secondary infections; these occur as a result of the body’s defenses being compromised by the primary disease.Secondary infections, in turn, can result in tissue loss causing fingers and toes to become shortened and deformed, as cartilage is absorbed into the body.
-In 1995, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that between 2 and 3 million people were permanently disabled because of leprosy at that time.In the past 20 years, 15 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy.
-Leprosy has affected humanity for over 4,000 years,and was recognized in the civilizations of ancient China, Egypt and India.Although the forced quarantine or segregation of patients is unnecessary in places where adequate treatments are available, many leper colonies still remain around the world in countries such as India(where there are still more than 1,000 leper colonies),China,and Japan.Leprosy was once believed to be highly contagious and was treated with mercury—all of which applied to syphilis, which was first described in 1530. It is possible that many early cases thought to be leprosy could actually have been syphilis. The age-old social stigma associated with the advanced form of leprosy lingers in many areas, and remains a major obstacle to self-reporting and early treatment. Effective treatment first appeared in the late 1940s. Resistance has developed to initial treatment. It was not until the introduction of MDT in the early 1980s that the disease could be diagnosed and treated successfully within the community.
There are 150 children at the village, some who are sick and some who are there because their parents or guardians are sick.
Mid-Autum Festival is celebrated in Vietnam next weekend and is regarded as a children’s holiday, not unlike Halloween at home. So, this event was set up to make sure these kids get to celebrate the holiday too! We set up 15 stations for them, each station had a game. My station was fishing, they had a long bamboo stick with a fishing line and hook on the bottom and they had to scoop up a fish from here.
Each fish had a number on the bottom. Each kid had a piece of paper, and their points for each game were recorded on here. When they had tried all the games, they took their paper to the prize station and claimed their prizes. The volunteers brought lots of moon cakes, iced tea and sushi for snacks and they got colourful lanterns to take home for the festival this weekend.
I had so much fun, the kids absolutely love the games. They thought I was very strange though, and only the older ones could understand that I didn’t speak Vietnamese. There was a lot of staring but I did make two very good buddies. These two were at my station over and over again and always got me to play with them!
The kids went home around 12 and the volunteers sat down to a delicious home cooked meal prepared by some women at the centre.
All the volunteers from Saigon Helping Hands were fantastic! The were really friendly and I hope that I get the chance to work with them again during my stay here in Saigon.