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Spinaloga: The graveyard of Hansen's disease
by Thanos Kalamidas
2008-01-28 09:22:10
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Off the shores of Crete there is a small island that symbolizes a very old embarrassing story, not only for Greece, but for the whole world and that’s why you will not find long reports or historical facts in any encyclopedia. Spinaloga is a very small island, I think it is only a few miles off the coast of one of the most visited and touristic areas of Crete, near Agios Nicolaos and Elounta, and, apart from its …embarrassing part, it has a significant historical value due to a castle built on the island.

The castle was built in the early 16th century in an effort to defend Crete from the Turkish invaders and it managed to maintain the small island's freedom for nearly 70 years, even though the rest of Crete fell into Turkish hands. However, our story starts in the opening years of the 20th century, 1905 to be exact, when the island became a leper’s colony following a state law. As amazing as it may sound, the place remained a leper colony till 1957 and it is really weird for me since it closed just before I was born.

Multibacillary Hansen’s disease, named after G.H. Armauer Hansen, the Norwegian doctor who first isolated and identified the cause of the disease, is well-known to humanity. There are a lot of references in a lot of books throughout human history, including the Bible. Apparently it is one of the most prejudiced illnesses that don’t recognize colour or status. The problem with the disease is that the results are visual on the skin and of course it caused repulsion towards the victims of the disease.

ovi_spinaloga02_400Poor medical knowledge also led pushed these people into exile from the societies and the creation of colonies that - believe it or not - still exist in places like India and Vietnam. But since I’m not a doctor myself to explain it in medical terms I assure you that is has been known since Hansen's times in the late-19th century that leprosy is not infectious; there is no way to transmit it from one person to the other whatever you might try, and I’m going to explain that soon.

However, returning to Spinaloga I have to admit that on my first visit to the island I was totally shocked and I found it very difficult to believe all the stories I had heard. What made it difficult to believe was the fact I mentioned before: the colony was still active until a few years before I was born. Naturally, a 16th century castle made the confusion even worse at the time, since the only pictures most people have from lepers comes mainly from the Bible, which chronologically puts the disease 20 centuries ago!

I was very lucky to have a local for guide who not only guided me across the island, told me all the stories she knew but later she also introduced me to the son of the last ferry man who added a lot of stories to the ones I had already heard. In 1905 the Greek government decided to move all the lepers from all around the nation to this island, even by force if it was necessary, and that order ignored education, class and wealth - they all found themselves on this tiny island isolated from family and society, with only their disease as the common factor.

ovi_spinaloga04_400It was natural that these people gradually built a small society with all the simple or complexities any other society has. There were the ones who had money and they could do their shopping through the ferry man or the nurses from the nearby villages, and there were the ones who could hardly survive on the rock because it was literally a rock; their houses were inside the rock or the old fort. One amazing fact was that other than the victims of Hansen's disease there were many totally healthy people on the island, such as the husbands, wives and relatives who wanted to be with them. I’m not going to say the stories because there are many, including a lot of Romeo and Juliet style, but I have to refer to a couple of interesting events that show the ignorance on the disease at the time.

When the Nazis invaded and occupied Crete they didn’t dare go over to the island because they were scared of the residents of the colony they cleared everything from the coast across from the island and placed a company of soldiers armed with heavy submachine guns in a case they would try to escape. Once a day they sent the ferry man across with all the necessary food and medicines and, apparently, because they were so scared that the residents would escape, the portions of food were sometimes very generous, especially considering that at the same time nearly a million Greeks died from starvation.

Of course, poor knowledge about Hansen’s disease led to Spinaloga and, in extent, to all leper colonies, being filled with people who had all sorts of other skin and aphrodisiac diseases that were unfortunately contagious and sometimes lethal, killing many of the inhabitants of Spinaloga. In 1957, when all the patients were moved to hospitals for treatment, doctors found among them a couple of cases of …scabies!

ovi_spinaloga05_400Between the mid-40s and early-1950s, Greece suffered a long and bloody civil war, so while lepers were finding comfort with the new medicines and they managed to return to normal life in most western countries, Greece was still at war and a 200-souls colony was far out of the immediate interests of the government. However, in 1953 the case came to the Greek parliament and the law that sent lepers to Spinaloga had to be dismissed and the people should be free to follow their therapy and rejoin the society. Strangely, the law didn't come into force until late-1957 because the locals, through the help they were getting from the government to keep the colony and from all the commerce coming from the rock, some of the residents were pretty wealthy and used all their influence to keep the colony active, including the local authorities, which is why it resulted in another four years outside of society.

About Spinaloga’s history, just like with other colonies around the world, there is very little information, but if you ever visit Crete make sure you ask to visit the small island. The amazing things about it, apart from its history, is the beautiful view of the Aegean and let's hope that this place has become the graveyard of all the prejudice that surround Hansen’s disease.
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Asa2008-01-28 09:32:45
That was quite interesting.

I look forward to you taking me there on an Ovi excursion ;)

Sand2008-01-28 16:17:41
This information from Wikipedia elaborates a bit on the article and indicated that the disease is indeed infectious but infection occurs with difficulty.

Hansen's disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae.[1] Leprosy is primarily a granulomatous disease of the peripheral nerves and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract; skin lesions are the primary external symptom.[2] Left untreated, leprosy can be progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes. Contrary to popular conception,[citation needed] leprosy does not cause body parts to simply fall off, and it differs from tzaraath, the malady described in the Hebrew scriptures and previously translated into English as leprosy.[3]

Historically, leprosy has affected humanity since at least 300 BC, and was well-recognized in the civilizations of ancient China, Egypt and India.[4] In 1995, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that between two and three million individuals were permanently disabled because of leprosy.[5] Although the forced quarantine or segregation of patients is unnecessary—and can be considered unethical—a few leper colonies still remain around the world, in countries such as India, and Vietnam.

The age-old social stigma associated with the advanced form of leprosy lingers in many areas, and remains a major obstacle to self-reporting and early treatment. Effective treatment for leprosy appeared in the late 1940s with the introduction of dapsone and its derivatives. However, leprosy bacilli resistant to dapsone gradually evolved and became widespread, and it was not until the introduction of multidrug therapy (MDT) in the early 1980s that the disease could be diagnosed and treated successfully within the community.

Eva2008-01-29 01:29:12
Very interesting.
And it nearly makes me wish I suffered from leprosy in Greece in the 30's or so...
Eh, touch wood and sorry for the tragic history and the rest...
But the island is STUNNING!

madaboutcolonies2008-02-04 17:42:53
i think it is really mean to force people into making leper colonies...... its in

madaboutcolonies2008-02-04 17:44:11
even though the island was STUNNING and SPECTACTLUAR!

Haris2008-11-21 16:29:45
A good novel to read based on Spinalonga in the 40s and 50s is 'The Island' by Victoria Hislop. Great book!

katthleen2009-01-22 03:38:25
reading "the island" by Victoria Hislop, great book, about just this topic!!!

masha2009-02-23 16:43:03
yes i just finished victoria hislops book and it was such a buzz to google all the images of the island...... i beleive that the lepers did create a real community in the face of great diversity and our present day society could learn much from this maybe...

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