Our Work Fighting Leprosy in Iran


There were numerous health organizations in Iran. A most touching one which I presided over, was the "Society for Help to the Lepers" headed by Doctor Radji.  Back in the early fifties, leprosy was still a fairly widespread disease in Iran. It still is a terrible affliction in the sense that those who are stricken with it suffer not only the agony of a debilitating disease but also from the fear they aroused in others. When the above organization was founded, very few doctors or nurses were prepared to care for the lepers. Only a few members of Christian religious orders were willing to help.  Hospital conditions were terrible, resembling

those of medieval times.

 always liked to judge things for myself and felt the deep sorrow of our afflicted compatriots. Having seen the conditions in which they lived, I had nightmares. Each visit upset me for weeks. The only comparison I can find is a macabre one, but alas, it corresponded closely to the reality: a Fellini film, but without the humour. The first time I went to visit our lepers, I took cakes for the children. Someone accompanying me threw the sweets at the patients. I shall never forget that scene, everyone around me was terrified at the idea of touching a leper.  In order to instill them with a measure of courage I hugged and kissed a young patient, and then another.

My purpose in seeing these unfortunate people was to prove that I firmly intended to help them and show to others that one must not be afraid of a disease which is not as contagious as popular beliefs claim. I insisted  to approach them at close range. Some had but half a face, others had no hands or feet. To set a firm example, I talked to the patients as if they were ordinary people. I shook the hands of those who still had one. The women embraced me and touched my face as if I had healing powers. Some, who had lost a lip, spattered my cheek with their saliva as they spoke to me but I acted as though nothing had happened.

The physical and moral distress of these true outcasts was so poignant that I promptly arranged for the "Society for the Help to Lepers" to have all required funds.  The organization became one of the most advanced research centers in the world for leprosy and its diagnosis. Unfortunately, leprosy is an insidious and tenacious disease which sometimes takes several years to show itself, but it can be cured.  By 1979 there were still many lepers, about two thousands in our centers and nearly ten thousand known cases throughout Iran.

The King made a gift of land on which we built a beautiful village for those who had been cured from the disease.  At first, the World Health Organisation was a bit  hostile to this idea.  Somehow they did not  fully realize the  great fear which lepers, even cured, still aroused in Iranian country districts. But the results we obtained were spectacular. The village became a prosperous center of activity with houses, cinema and shops. Other villages were also built. The citizens had thriving cooperatives and cottage industries. They lived and worked cultivating acres of land and raised cattle. They brought their products to the market. Indeed, they were so successful that the people of the region eagerly visited them on a regular basis. At long last their fear had vanished! Little by little the former lepers mingled  back with other inhabitants of the region. Today, I am proud to say that not only we brought the former patients back into society, but the Iranian society as a whole finally came back to them.  Although I now live in exile, my thoughts are always with all of them, patients, devoted doctors and nurses.  My earnest hope is that despite a change of regime the good work will continue in present Iran as it did with such success in the past.

Above,  at a new facility, Iranian Development Corpsmen are instructing leprosy patients
in modern agricultural techniques.  Photo circa 1977.   

And the work continues, click below to see a letter I received from the
International Association for Integration, Dignity, and Economic Advancement



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