Mission on the Amazon

Dr. Antonia (Toni) López spends her life working with people suffering from a disease that most people consider to be almost eradicated. 

Hansen’s disease (Leprosy) is a chronic infectious disease that primarily affects the peripheral nerves, skin, upper respiratory tract, eyes and nasal mucosa.  The disease is a long-lasting and slow growing disease and can take from 2 to 10 years before symptoms appear. Today, the diagnosis and treatment is easy and most endemic countries don’t suffer from it. Unfortunately, the Brazilian Government does not recognise that it has a leprosy problem and so does not provide funding for Dr. Toni. Instead, her main source of funding is the Order of Augustinian Recollects who have several Missions in Brazil.

The Black Lagoon
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Her clinic is in the heart of the Rain Forest of Brazil beside one of the tributaries of the Amazon, the River Purus.  Since 1992 Dr. Toni has lived on the hospital boat, The Black Lagoon, which travels the length of the river searching out sick people. The main objectives are to educate people on recognising symptoms and teaching methods that prevent the spread of the disease. Dr. Toni and her team of volunteers work tirelessly to try and catch the disease before it gets too advanced and, in the worse cases, needs amputation of a limb.  The disease isn’t limited to age or gender – children can catch it as well as adults.

In the jungle it is not easy to follow basic hygiene regimes, there is no running water and the heat and the damp will damage towels and even the pills.

After several years, Dr. Toni now treats 8,700 patients on her stretch of the river. At first, she was very fortunate to have many volunteers who travelled from Europe to help on her boat however none are still with her. So Dr. Toni decided to train volunteers from their villages.  A huge undertaking; most of them had no training and verbal communication was extremely difficult.

Patients await treatment       
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Today about 180,000 people worldwide are infected with leprosy, according to the World Health Organization who provides free treatment for the disease. For long-term treatment, two or more antibiotics are recommended, usually for six months to a year. However this does not treat the nerve damage, anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids are used to control nerve pain and damage.

Without treatment, leprosy can permanently damage your skin, nerves, arms, legs, feet, and eyes. Complications can include: blindness or glaucoma, disfiguration of the face,  infertility in men, kidney failure and muscle weakness. It can also cause permanent damage to the nose and the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, including those in the arms, legs, and feet.

Dr. Toni examines a child 
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However, leprosy is not that contagious. It is only passed on if you come into close and repeated contact with nose and
mouthdroplets from someone with untreated leprosy. Children are more likely to get leprosy than adults.  Working in the Amazon rain forest, avoiding water or dampness is impossible and a huge problem in fighting the disease.

When she was asked if she was afraid of catching the disease herself, Dr. Toni replied “I could have it already as it takes ten years to incubate. My helpers and I have a routine of examining ourselves every day to spot any tell-tail signs of early stages of the disease. We wear sensible shoes and are very careful.” She thanks God that no one has been affected yet.

Dr. Toni has embraced the Leprosy sufferers following the example of Jesus in the gospels.  She said that her goal in life is to one day tell people who she works with, that Leprosy has been eradicated from Brazil just as it has been in Europe.

Written by Patricia Gough and adapted by Kathryn Poole