For millennia, leprosy was the scourge of the human race – its impact on society and individual lives has been well-documented within historical and religious texts. Prior to the discovery of a cure in the 1960s, the debilitating effects of leprosy on its sufferers led them to be ostracized and isolated from the rest of the population – they would often suffer in silence and be left to die alone.
In Malaysia, the documented history of this disease goes back about three centuries during the British Colonial era, at which time measures were being taken to contain the spread of the disease. These measures included the formation of leprosaria - isolated communities of lepers the most famous of which were located at Sungai Buloh and Pulau Jerejak – which were essentially tightly-controlled camps from which lepers were not allowed to leave.
Within these high security facilities leprosy patients would live their lives completely isolated from society – interacting only between themselves and the small community of care workers tasked to ensure their physical wellbeing. The basic rights that many of us take for granted: the freedom of movement and ability to take jobs, for instance, were denied to them by the circumstances of their predicament.
In 1959, upon a visit to the Sungai Buloh leprosarium the late Senator Tan Sri Mohammed Tahir Tan Tong Hye, an active politican and philanthropist, was so moved by the plight of the sufferers that he founded the Malayan Leprosy Relief Association, later known as the Malaysian Leprosy Relief Association. His dream was to not only ensure that the patients would receive the necessary medical care needed to speed their recovery, but ultimately for their recovery as fully-functioning productive members of society.
As luck would have it, within a few years of the Association’s formation, revolutionary new treatments for leprosy which included the medicines dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine, which were combined in the 1960s to form a multidrug therapy (MDT) to treat leprosy.
MaLRA, as it later became fondly known as, initially worked closely with various communities across Malaysia to ensure sufferers were able to access treatments by providing cash assistance to cover transportation, accommodation and other costs not provided for by the Government. This assistance proved especially crucial to those living in remote locations where access to healthcare was challenging.
The Malaysian Government’s efforts, in conjunction with MaLRA’s support, led to success when in 1994 the World Health Organisation under the United Nations announced the elimination of leprosy in Malaysia.
More than six decades on after its founding, MaLRA’s work and the vision of our Founder continues as the Association persists in its efforts to alleviate the suffering of current patients as well as legacy patients and their families – ensuring that legacy patients have a safety net in their old age, encouraging new patients (particularly those from lower income households and those located in remote areas) to seek treatment, and providing subsidies for essential medical treatment, wheelchairs, crutches and prosthetics.
“Some people think that as soon as you plant a tree, it must bear fruit. We must allow it to grow a bit.”
Tunku Abdul Rahman