The smiling octogenarian and his misunderstood disease

U Saw Silver has long been cured of the leprosy he contracted in his teens, but the disease was diagnosed too late to prevent it causing permanent damage to his hands and feet, where the digits have almost entirely disappeared.

(Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

U Saw Silver, 89, wore a huge smile as he entered the small meeting room set aside for our interview at the Mawlamyine Christian Leprosy Hospital. 

As U Saw Silver entered the room, I stood and greeted him with a firm handshake. The smile of his face grew wider.

“Thank you,” he said, beaming. “Thank you for not finding my hands ugly. Some people think that my hands are horrible, but for my friends and family, it doesn’t matter.”

Even though leprosy is one of the world’s oldest diseases, it is still greatly misunderstood.

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Leprosy – also known as Hansen’s Disease – is infectious and thought to be spread by close, frequent contact with an infected, untreated person.

“It is the least contagious of all the communicable diseases,” said Dr Saw Hsar Mu Lar, a leprosy specialist at the hospital. “It is very difficult to catch,” he said. “You have to spend a lot of time with somebody who is infected, and even then, not all leprosy patients can pass it on.”

A person who has been treated for leprosy is not contagious and most people have an immunity to the disease.

In 2003, Myanmar reached an ‘elimination’ target set by the World Health Organisation, meaning that less than one person in 10,000 has the illness. Figures from the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations, citing WHO data, show that the number of new infections reported in Myanmar has hovered at about 3,000 for the past ten years.

(Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Highly feared, little understood

The Mawlamyine hospital, founded by Christian missionaries in 1898, is on the southeastern outskirts of the Mon State capital.

U Kyaw Zwar Oo, who moved to the area decades ago after his mother was admitted to the hospital and runs a small shop opposite its entrance, said there was a time when people walking past the facility would often hold their noses because they believed it would prevent them from being infected.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” said U Kyaw Zwar Oo. “People better understand about the illness and the hospital has become an important part of the local community,” he said.

A disheartening challenge for those with leprosy, particularly those showing its disfiguring effects, is the stigma of being infected with a disease that is highly feared and little understood.

“There is this belief about Karma in Buddhism, so the [past] deeds are very important,” said Dr Zaw Moe Aung, country director for The Leprosy Mission Myanmar. “The belief is that if you did a bad deed in your past life, then you are ill in this life,” he said.

Yet, leprosy can be cured at any time.

Ma May Thet Khine, 14, lives across the Thanlwin River from Mawlamyine, on Bilu Island. A few months ago, her sister noticed blemishes on Ma May Thet Khine’s skin and took her to a doctor who immediately diagnosed leprosy. He referred the girl to the Mawlamyine hospital, where she is receiving treatment.

Head nurse Daw Ni Ni Thein said Ma May Thet Khine will make a full recovery and be able to return to school within weeks.

(Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

‘You killed my doctor!’

U Saw Silver attended high school in Yangon’s Ahlone Township, in the shadow of the governor’s residence during the twilight years of British rule. He met the last two governors, Sir Archibald Douglas Cochrane and Sir Reginald Hugh Dorman-Smith. His memories of British rule are so strong he broke into a rendition of “Rule Britannia” during our interview.

“When I saw the governor, I would salute, but at one point I realised that it was more difficult for me to do that,” said U Saw Silver. “That’s when I started to think there something wrong with my hands,” he said, adding that doctors then were unfamiliar with the disease and it was many years before he was diagnosed.

After his mother died in 1949, a loss he still struggles to discuss, he moved in with an aunt’s family in northern Yangon Region. While playing in a field near his aunt’s house, a friend told him of a cure for the illness afflicting U Saw Silver.

“He told me that if I let a snake bite me in the hand, then it will cure me,” he said. “Either that, or it would kill me. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to be cured, but this would be in God’s will,” said the devout Christian Karen.

“My friend brought a snake from the field and gave it to me. I stood there for a while, looking at it, but it did nothing. So, I grabbed it by its neck and it bit me in the hand,” he said, roaring with laughter. But the snake bit right through his hand and its venom did not enter his body.

“I was standing there with this snake dangling from my hand,” he said, still laughing. “And my aunt came out and killed the snake. She shouted at me ‘Mr Silver, you’re so naughty!’ but I said, ‘I’m not naughty, you killed my doctor!’”

(Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

A few years after that incident, U Saw Silver heard about the hospital in Mawlamyine and, in 1953, travelled there by train from Yangon.

“When I bought my ticket, I was told that I could not travel with the other people and was made to travel in the back of the train,” he said. “That really upset me at the time, but I don’t think about it anymore.”

Despite no longer needing treatment, the hospital continues to play an important part in his life. He lives only a few minutes’ walk from the hospital compound, in the house he shared with his wife, also a leprosy patient, until she died seven years ago. Many of his children and grandchildren live nearby.

“When I met my wife, I played football all the time,” U Saw Silver said. “But my wife, she said to me, you either choose the football or you choose me. I looked at my sweetheart’s face, then I looked at the football, so lovely and round. But in the end, I chose my wife,” he said, with another fit of laughter.

U Saw Silver works as a leader of the community of leprosy patients and although it is something he never planned, it is a role he enjoys.

“God didn’t give me what I want, he gave me what I need,” he said. “I wanted to be a leader for Karen and Christian people, instead I am a leader of people who are affected by leprosy, of all races and religions.”

By Oliver Slow

By Oliver Slow

Oliver Slow is a Southeast Asia-based journalist. He is a former Chief-of-Staff at Frontier, and is writing a book about Myanmar's transition.
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