While on the island of Molokai, I rode a mule down to a small village on the Kalaupapa peninsula where people with Hansen's Disease, or leprosy were once isolated. The narrow muddy trail descended 26 switchbacks down over 1,700 feet. The trip down was a bit scary as my mule slipped more than once in the slick mud.
Hansen’s Disease also known as leprosy, is caused by a the bacillus bacterium Mycobacterium leprae.Norwegian doctor Gerhard Hansen first discovered the bacterium in 1873. Most people are naturally immune to this bacterium, but about 1 in every 500 of us lack this immunity, and if exposed can develop the disease. Hansen’s disease affects the nervous system, skin and eyes. Direct physical contact with a person who has the disease is necessary for transmission, but patients receiving treatment for the disease are not infectious. The disease is now curable with medications.
Despite all the fear this disease raised in people, this is one of the least contagious of the communicable diseases. Fear of contracting this disease led to the isolation of those with Hansen’s Disease. Twenty eight patients still live in Kalaupapa on Molokai’s north shore. The seas surrounding the settlement are usually very rough, and cliffs, some as high as 3,500 feet, make access from inland very difficult. The trail starts near the trees at the top of the cliff and works it's way down the steep cliffside.
The Kalaupapa Peninsula from the trail down the cliff side.Kalaupapa from the air. I took this from the small plane I took from Maui to Molokai.The Kalaupapa Peninsula was once the site of an active fishing village, but in 1866 King Kamehameha V ordered those with advanced Hansen’s Disease to this isolated area. Those who came to this area never saw their family or friends again. Women who gave birth here had their babies immediately taken from them. Having the disease was cause for arrest and banishment.The first settlement was on the opposite side of the peninsula from the town of Kalaupapa, and was called Kalawao. Those with the disease were taken by boat, and forced into the water near the large pointed rock in this picture. They then had to swim to shore and hike over several valleys to reach the settlement. They had inadequate food, shelter and no medical care. Conditions improved under the care of Father Damien and others. Father Damien arrived at Kalawao in 1873 and died in 1889 after contracting Hansen’s disease. Father Damien worked hard to improve the nutrition, medical care, and shelter for the patients. He alerted the outside world to the horrible living conditions that existed on the Kalaupapa peninsula.
St. Philomena Church and Father Damien’s grave
This is the only remaining building from the Kalawao settlement. Built by Brother Victorin Bertrant in 1872, it was remodeled by the patients and Father Damien in 1876. The gravesite visible in the photo is the original gravesite of Father Damien. Other priests also have marked graves in the cemetery, but there are hundreds of unmarked graves of patients who died here. Over 7,000 people are buried here and at Kalaupapa, most in unmarked graves. Father Damien’s remains were returned to Belgium, only his right hand remains at Kalawao. The original settlement at Kalawao was abandoned in the late 1800’s for Kalaupapa as Mother Marianne Cope, a Franciscan nun who continued Father Damien’s work, realized it would be easier to receive supplies on this side of the peninsula. The seas are calmer at Kalaupapa, and it is warmer and drier. Beginning in the 1940’s sufone drug treatment was available for those with the disease. The drugs arrest the advancement of the disease, and in 1969 isolation of patients at Kalaupapa was stopped.