A couple who got married after falling in love while working at a leprosy hospital are delighted the UK government has vowed to double a charity’s fundraising to tackle the disease.
All donations to The Leprosy Mission’s “Heal Nepal” campaign before April 27 will be doubled by the Department for International Development (DFID) through its UK aid match scheme.
The money will support the charity’s Anandaban Hospital in Nepal to launch a final fight to rid the country of the ancient disease once and for all.
Murdo Macdonald fell in love with his wife Rachel while the pair helped treat leprosy sufferers at the Nepalese hospital being supported by the charity’s UK aid match campaign.
Lab scientist Murdo, 55, from Tranent, admitted: “There aren’t many couples who can say that they fell for each other while working at a leprosy hospital.
“I first met Rachel in India. It’s funny because on the day Rachel was posted there to work as doctor I was due to fly home, but I actually postponed my flight to meet the beautiful woman who was to become my wife.
“We then worked at Anandaban Hospital for ten years and fell in love. Two of our three children were actually born in Nepal.
“Anandaban hospital is incredibly close to our hearts so we are thrilled that the UK government has chosen The Leprosy Mission for UK Aid Match funding.”
Someone in the world is diagnosed with leprosy every two minutes.
Left untreated leprosy causes progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and even blindness. Only a dozen people are diagnosed with the bacterial infection in the UK each year – but there were 3,215 new cases in Nepal in 2017.
Medical doctor Rachel, 46, says that sufferers at Anandaban Hospital were stunned that she allowed them to play with the couple’s children.
She said: “Because we lived on the hospital compound, our work and homelife was all intertwined. Our children would happily play with patients or their children.
“Many patients were often overwhelmed to finally have physical contact with another human being because they had been so ostracised in their communities.”
She added: “The stigma is so great, people with symptoms tend to avoid seeking treatment because they don’t want to be diagnosed.
“It’s frustrating because it is easily treatable with a course of antibiotics – and the earlier you come, the better the outcome.
“Work has been done to tackle the stigma, but you are up against centuries of misinformation.
“We had quite a lot of women, who at that time we were out, had been abandoned because developing leprosy was a legal reason for divorce. That law’s changed now thankfully.
“When we did courses for junior doctors, the first day of the course was just about getting the doctors touching the patients and not being afraid to have that contact.
“Anandaban is Nepali for ‘forest of joy’ and it was a real haven for people who had perhaps been frightened or shunned for so long.”
Rachel – now an elderly care specialist for the Royal College of Physicians, in Edinburgh, after the family returned to the UK in 2008 – says Anandaban Hospital is playing a vital role in the battle to eradicate leprosy.
She said: “If you’ve ever seen the film Ben Hur, there is a leper colony in the film and some of them come out covered in bandages and try to hide themselves. Our time in Nepal was often just like that.
“People were made outcasts. It was heart-breaking to see. A lot of older cases had literally lost all of their fingers and toes. Sometimes we had to do amputations right at the top of the leg because of the infection.
“Sometimes children would be dropped off at the hospital and just abandoned. I remember we had a little girl who was about eight or nine. Her name was Sita.
“Her father wasn’t well, and her mother had died. Her teacher at school had noticed that she kept damaging her hands and she wasn’t feeling them. She had very advanced leprosy.
“She had claw hands, so she was with us for a long time and had operations on both hands. Sita was eventually put through school in Kathmandu by The Leprosy Mission.”
Murdo – now working for the Church of Scotland – is thrilled that every pound donated to Heal Nepal before April 27 will be doubled by the UK government.
He said: “I guess because we don’t see it in Scotland, most people think that leprosy is a disease of the past.
“We maybe read about it in the Bible or we see it portrayed on Horrible Histories with bits falling off people, so it’s presented as a comedy subject in one sense, but it is also a disease that still causes a lot of devastation.
“It is a very graphic disease because it can change peoples’ appearance. There is a visceral reaction to seeing somebody who has leprosy that you don’t get with someone with TB for example.
“Once it’s diagnosed it is treatable, but just getting people to come forward for diagnosis is one of the problems.
“We had incidences of people who knew they had leprosy, but would wait until their last daughter was married before they would come forward for treatment because they knew that nobody would marry their daughters if they were coming from a house that had leprosy in it.
“Currently, one person every two minutes is diagnosed with leprosy. That needs to change.”
DFID’S support for The Leprosy Mission through UK Aid Match is part of a drive to combat infectious disease that has also seen UK aid money used to develop a vaccine for Ebola.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said: “Murdo and Rachel Macdonald’s heartwarming story highlights one of a number of UK aid projects tackling diseases around the world – from the Ebola vaccine which has saved thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the millions of children immunised in the world’s poorest countries from preventable diseases.
“The UK government is doubling the money raised for Heal Nepal through its UK Aid Match appeal to help the fight against leprosy.
“Our work is building a safer, healthier, more prosperous world for people in developing countries and in the UK too.”
For more info on Heal Nepal or to donate go to http://www.healnepal.org.uk/