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Healing Communities: Extending a Healing Hand, Then and Now

Kalaupapa: From Harsh Exile to Healing Community

Historically, Native peoples often had little resistance to diseases introduced from other parts of the world. Hansen’s disease (leprosy) came to Hawai‘i in the 19th century. The disfiguring and then-untreatable disease aroused panic, and in 1866, led the Hawaiian Kingdom to quarantine persons for life on Kalaupapa, an inaccessible peninsula on the island of Moloka‘i.

The health of the patients and the extraordinarily harsh living on Kalaupapa sparked an international response, including a 19th-century mission led by Catholic priest Father Damien. By 1946 a treatment for the disease using sulfone drugs was discovered, but Hansen’s disease patients remained confined to Kalaupapa until 1969. Today, about 20 patients (whose Hansen’s disease remains under control) live voluntarily at Kalaupapa where they receive free medical care.

The Kalaupapa story illustrates the devastating impact of external contact on Native Hawaiian health. But it is also a story of the compassionate care of Father Damien, and of the physicians who still tend to the remaining patients. It also illustrates how advances in medical knowledge can overcome ignorance. The Kalaupapa saga is commemorated in Hawai‘i by Saint Damien Day celebrated annually on April 15. Father Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.