Hugh E. Gentry/AP
An aerial photograph of Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai, Hawaii.

Hawaii Apologizes for Banishing Lepers

August 14, 2008 05:40 PM
by Josh Katz
Lepers were quarantined on the Hawaiian island of Molokai for more than a century. The state's legislature is issuing an official apology to those patients.

Hawaii apologizes

"We're sorry. We're sorry for the treatment. We're sorry for the suffering that you've been through," state Sen. J. Kalani English said to about a dozen former leprosy patients on Tuesday. "The entire state is with me today as I say this."

The Senate and House passed a resolution in April apologizing to the patients. On Tuesday, English publicly read the resolution.

The resolution acknowledged that Hawaii had caused suffering by dividing families, and it pointed out the “sacrifices the patients made, noting they thought of the public more than themselves, and gave up freedoms and opportunities the rest of society takes for granted,” the Associated Press reports.

Background: Lepers sent to Molokai

In 1865, King Kamehameha V approved "An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” during an outbreak of the illness, also known as Hansen's disease. The Hawaiian Kingdom and later the Republic, Territory and State of Hawaii adopted the policy, restricting 8,000 people to a small community on the island of Molokai’s Kalaupapa Peninsula, which was blocked off from the rest of the island by a 2,000 foot-high cliff and practically inaccessible. According to the U.S. National Park Service, “With new cases threatening to eradicate the native population and no knowledge of what caused the disease, officials were desperate. At the time, there was no effective treatment and no cure.”

Conditions were harsh for the inhabitants, though the Catholic priest Father Damien drastically improved life there when he arrived in 1873, by bringing more public attention to the perils of the islanders and helping to build up the infrastructure.

The quarantine was lifted in 1969 when doctors could halt the spread of the illness with sulfone drugs, but many chose to continue living at Kalaupapa.

Related Topic: FDA approves Thalidomide for leprosy treatment

The FDA approved thalidomide, the drug blamed for thousands of babies being born with deformities like “flipperlike limbs,” in 1996 to help treat a complication of leprosy and possibly symptoms of AIDS. Women used thalidomide in the 1950s to alleviate the symptoms of morning sickness during pregnancy. But the FDA devised policies to minimize any harmful effects when used for leprosy or AIDS; according to a 1996 New York Times article, “The resulting system will make thalidomide the most strictly regulated medicine in the nation's history.”

Reference: Leprosy


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