The Leprosy Hospital in Ekpene Ebom, Etinan Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State is easy to find by the indigenes of the four communities of Ekpene Ebom, Ndon Eyo, Edem Ekpat and Ikot Inyang Osung, but for a first-time visitor, it is not so obvious.
In fact, you must drive or walk into the facility through a narrow, bending road. Security concerns, occasioned by vandalism by locals, forced the management to shut the main entrance of the facility. This however has not deterred the thieves.
Thieves have carted away water pump, thunder protector, and have burgled the lounge housing youth corps members resident in the hospital, and the administrative block on two occasions; smashed the windows and packed away the frames as well as harvesting foods planted by the lepers.
Some of these acts are carried out in day light as the thieves, armed with machetes, harass staff members who confront them. The hoodlums allege that the land on which the food items are planted belongs to them.
The hospital insists it has been paying rent to the rightful owners of the land and have instituted a policy were three quarters of the 68 staff are indigenes of the community to give them a higher stake in the establishment. It doesn’t seem to cut it.
“Insecurity is so much here. We have problems with the parameter fencing and we have not been able to engage enough hands as security men,” Dr. Afia Archibong Afia, the Medical Superintendent, said.
“Recently, thieves came in here and harassed us. We have these experiences from time to time,” he said.
The hospital secretary, Elder Abraham J. Okpon, who took our correspondent around the facility, explained that the robberies are perpetrated by persons who claim that they did not benefit from the money paid for the land and that the amount their fathers received for the facility was paltry and not commensurate with current economic realities.
“Twelve young men came by force and harvested nine bunches of plantain planted by the patients and pear fruits from that pear tree. They had to cut down some branches of the tree with many ripe pears so that it would be easy for them to harvest it. They came in here armed with machetes and filled almost two 50kg bags of rice with the pears,” he said.
On their rationale, he said, “Government is aware of the security challenge and in March this year, we invited the four village heads to talk over the issue.”
The leprosy hospital, once a colony established by The Leprosy Mission (TLM) in 1932 to treat leprosy patients and accommodate them because of the stigmatization and discrimination patients suffer outside the facility has since had to change its approach due to shortage of funds.
In fact, the arrangement where the Akwa Ibom State government, the Qua Iboe Church, Nigeria and The Leprosy Mission, Northern Ireland, combined to run the place collapsed when The Leprosy Mission (TLM) withdrew their support in 2010.
Being the main financier of the facility, providing medical personnel, drugs, clothes, TLM’s withdrawal caused the facility to fall into ruins.
According to Dr Affia, this forced them to change their approach.
The facility has evolved from the leprosy colony and is “focused on reintegration of patients into their communities, and then we also expand to cover other needs of these patients.”
Beside treating leprous patients free, the hospital also attends to their other health needs like treatment of malaria, eye operations and other surgeries needed to make them whole.
Items like food, clothes and money donated to the hospital are also given out to the patients. And once patients are leprosy free, they are empowered financially and trained in skill acquisition to assist their rehabilitation. Currently, 11 of them are being sponsored trained in sewing and nine of them in hair dressing, two in vulcanizing, and some others in weaving and trading according to the extent of their deformities. The hospital has even arranged artificial limbs for amputees and has built two bedroom flats for some.
“Since funds have been a problem, most of our activities towards rehabilitation have slowed down,” Dr. Afia explained. “Leprosy affects the entire person, so what we do in rehabilitation is to try and integrate the person back into the community, make the person useful to himself. In fact, restore his or her dignity as a human being.”
Mr. Okon Okpong, a resident elder, was a former long-time patient at the hospital. He came into the facility at a young age and after he was treated and certified free of the disease, was trained to manufacture prosthetics for amputees and is now in the employ of the state government.
Okpong, who also wears a prosthetic limb, is married and has two children who are University graduates.
“I was sent to Tanzania and then Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast, Northern Ireland where I learnt how to make these artificial legs,” he said. “When I came back, I was employed by the government. I am also training people to take over from me when I retire. I have made over four hundred artificial legs but this year alone, I have made over twenty legs, and it is free for the leprosy patients.”
However, some of the patients who have been certified free from leprosy have either refused to return to their communities for fear of being stigmatized or because they have been abandoned by their relatives despite efforts by the management of the hospital to educate their families and communities that they are not a threat to them. For these, the hospital is saddled with the responsibility of catering for them for life.
Recently, the hospital buried seven inmates who died within the premises having been abandoned by their relatives. One such person had been at the facility since 1964.
There are also many inmates who are not registered patients but have lived within the hospital premises. The ‘Friends of Ekpene Ebom’ as they are called, live in the premises because it is the only place they are accepted and treated as human beings. Some of them have intermarried and have children, which are catered for by the hospital.
The government established a primary school within the facility for these children to curb the problem of stigmatization in public schools.
The increasing support from the government has reduced the strain on the hospital administration.
“The help we get from the government, particularly now from the present administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel is tremendous. In fact, it is like answered prayers. If you look around, you will see a lot of renovations going on.
“Now we are having a regular support monthly in terms of food, sponsored by the programme of the Governor’s wife, FEYRep. They attend to the feeding of the inmates every month which a big relief for us also.”
The Family Empowerment and Youth Reorientation Path–Initiative (FEYRep) programme of Mrs. Martha Emmanuel makes available the sum of N10,000 for each inmate monthly, to feed. The programme plans to build ten houses in different communities for the patients.
For the inmates, the future looks promising.