Tala Leprosarium: from leper’s paradise to perdition
(Second of two parts)
by Gina Mission

Tala patients read the handwriting on the wall

eprosy, according to the Department of Health (DOH), is a chronic, mildly communicable disease caused by the leprosy bacillus (mycobacterium leprae) which attacks the skin and nerves. It is transmitted through the respiratory tract. Prolonged and close contact with an untreated case increase the risk of transmission.

___The DOH said that 95 per cent of those who are infected with the bacilli, never develop the disease.

___At present, the DOH is using the multi drug therapy (MTD), a combination of Dapsone, Lamprene and/or Rifampicin for treating leper patients. The DOH claims that the combination cures leprosy and renders patients non-infectious a week after starting the treatment. The PB (paucibacillary, meaning the non-severe type) leper patient, can also use the ROM (combination of Rifampicin, Ofloxacin and Minocycline) treatment as an acceptable and cost effective alternative regimen. Similarly, the severely infected patient (MB or multibacillary) can also be treated with ROM therapy for 12 months "without compromising the efficacy of the treatment."

___The DOH declares that leprosy is a curable skin disease. During a press conference on February 22 at the launching of the national "Leprosy Control Week" held at the Jose Reyes Memorial Hospital, the DOH reported that for the past 13 years, the Philippines has made great progress in decreasing the number of persons afflicted with the disease. From a prevalence rate (PR) of 38,570 registered patients in 1986, the figure was decreased to 8,746 in 1997. A total of 88,117 patients have been cured of leprosy since 1986.

___But leper patients Antonio Mercado and Rolando Dizon, don’t agree.

___"Not a single leper patient has voluntarily left Tala Leprosarium after being completely cured from leprosy," claimed Dizon at a protest rally held at the DOH building. The rally was held while the press conference on the leprosy week celebration was on-going. Leper patients and employees of the Tala Leprosarium came to protest the alleged plan of the DOH to commercialize Tala, a 130-hectare reservation for leper patients and their families.

___In the words of Rudy Dizon, Rolando’s brother, "There is a sinister plan to phase out the Tala Leprosarium. That’s why they want to deceive the public into believing that there is indeed a decrease in the number of leper patients." But the truth is, he, says, the Tala management does not admit all leper patients, thereby giving the illusion of a decreased admission rate. "And of course, everybody knows that 300 patients were delisted after being paid P10,000 each in 1996," he added.

___The phase out plan, according to Dizon, will materialize with the implementation of RA 7999 and the DOH’s Succession Plan. And with the plan’s eventual completion, is the Tala residents’ fear that they will be displaced from the very place reserved to them by the government.

___RA 7999 declares the 70 hectares of the 130 hectares reserved for the leprosarium and settlement site of the hansenites and their families under Proclamation No. 843, to be alienable and disposable for use as a housing site for the bona fide residents, hansenites and their immediate families and for qualified employees of the Department of Health. Among other things, RA 7999 will give Tala residents titles to the land they occupy – but not for free. The Succession Plan, on the other hand, is a proposal to convert the 2,000-bed JNRMHS into a 200-bed tertiary general hospital.

___During the press conference, Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez denied that the government has immediate plans to commercialize Tala Leprosarium. He, however, refused to give any guarantee that it will not do so in the future. But he assured that "none of its bona fide patients will be displaced by the phase out."

___"I don’t know where they got the idea that Tala is going to be commercialized," he said. "We have no such plans."

___But unknown to Romualdez, Panata, an organization of Tala leper patients and residents, got a copy of the March 11, 1998 letter by Lydia San Pedro, officer-in-charge for Hospital Operations and Management Service of the DOH, to Remigio Reyes, Tala Leprosarium office-in-charge. The letter contains what could be the DOH’s real plan for Tala. In the letter, Reyes was advised of the approval of the succession plan of the leprosarium by the Department of Legislative Liaison Office of the DOH. A working paper on the succession plan was also attached.

___The working paper assesses the present capacity of the leprosarium and its population as well as the surrounding areas of Bagong Silang, Amparo, Tala Malaria, and Camarin. It also notes, among other things, that "the sanitarium has existing buildings that could be utilized for hospital facilities although it needs repair and renovations; the proposed plan of the sanitarium indicates functionality among the different hospital services; the site where the sanitaria is located is legally titled in favor of the DOH sanitaria."

___In its evaluation, the paper says that the "location of the sanitarium is accessible to a catchment population which shall assure of at least 80 per cent utilization rate." The sanitarium’s proposed expanded role, it says, is in response to the priority health needs of the catchment area. And as a preparation for its conversion, "the sanitarium has initiated preparatory activities to upgrade the capability of its staff such as training in each service to upgrade skills required for their expanded role."

___And on July 21, 1998, Dra. Ethelyn Nieto, in a memorandum to Dr. Reyes, ordered a moratorium on lot allocation in Tala.

___"How could they deny the phase out plan for Tala?," asked the protesters, adding that the Department’s intensified anti-leprosy projects such as the "Leprosy Elimination Campaign," Special Action Project for the Elimination of Leprosy (SAPEL), and the Kilatis Kutis Campaign are part of the grand plan to phase out the leprosarium.

___"While it is in the general public’s interest that the leprosarium admits non-hansenite patients from surrounding areas, it should not be done at our expense," declared the protesters in a statement. "Where does the management house the other leper if it changes to only a 200-bed capacity hospital? Naturally it will discharge those it can’t accommodate," they alleged.

___With the government turning a blind eye on the protesters’ allegations, the lepers and their families go home uncertain of their future - a future that may or may not find them squatting on or buying the very land reserved for their use by the government for free; and a future where free leprosy treatment may no longer be available.

Photo by Gina Mission

CyberDyaryo | 1999.02.25