Former leprosy patients at Silra Home look forward to visitors during Chinese New Year
When his only son was jailed several years ago, he stopped getting visits from his family during Chinese New Year.
Mr Lim Ah Hin, 83, is not in a home for the aged. He is one of the residents at the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association (Silra) Home at Buangkok View near Hougang.
Although the Silra Home is visited by volunteers, Mr Lim hopes more people will visit the former leprosy patients who live there and not shun them.
On the Silra website, leprosy is described as a mildly infectious disease caused by a bacteria, mycobacterium leprae. The disease mainly affects the skin and peripheral nerves.
Every year during Chinese New Year, volunteers go to the Silra Home to cheer up the residents.
Mr Lim, whose right leg was amputated below the knee in 1991 because of the disease, said: "I look forward to their visits every year. For me, their visits are the highlight of my Chinese New Year.
"I feel very happy when visitors turn up. Even though I have many friends at the home, it can get quite quiet here."
He said he misses his son, especially during the festive season. He added that the recalcitrant drug abuser, who is in his 50s, will be released in 2018.
He told The New Paper in a mix of Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew: "I have other relatives, but they never visit me here. I understand, they have their own families."
Public attitude towards former leprosy patients has changed greatly over the years.
Silra's executive officer, Mr Francis Tan, said that previously, many would avoid coming into contact with the residents of the home, even though the residents are cured and are no longer contagious.
He said: "I'm glad that Singaporeans are now more well-informed and many visit the home to bring some cheer to the residents.
"Some of our residents have been rejected by their family and friends. They need visitors to bring some joy to their lives."
Silrapresident Seow Chew Swee told TNP that the disease is curable with modern drugs and, like other diseases, all patients are treated as outpatients.
Dr Seow, a senior consultant dermatologist at the National Skin Centre, added: "Treatment with drugs kills the leprosy germ rapidly and, once treated, the patient is no longer passing on the germ to another person." (See report at right.)
Mr Lim became a resident of the home in 2001, about a year after his wife died.
He said he feels sad whenever visitors leave the home after spending time with them on Chinese New Year.
He added: "I will be very happy if more people take the trouble to come and visit me."
Another resident, Mr Lim Ah Lee, 81, agreed. He has been living at the home since 1993.
He said: "I've got nowhere else to go. Chinese New Year is also the only time when my younger sister will visit me here.
"It's always nice to catch up with her as no other family member ever drops by."
The bachelor said he has siblings, but is not close to them.
He said: "Most Silra residents like me are old. We really enjoy it when visitors drop by, not only on Chinese New Year but on other days, too. We really like the company."
10 to 15 new leprosy cases a year
In 1899, an act was passed, making it compulsory to isolate leprosy patients.
A leper camp was built in 1926 for this purpose. The camp was renamed the Trafalgar Home in 1950.
In 1971, another home for leprosy patients, run by the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association (Silra), was built at Lorong Buangkok.
As living conditions improved and the disease was under control, the Act was repealed in 1976.
The Trafalgar Home became the Trafalgar Unit in 1983 when it came under the purview of the old Woodbridge Hospital and Middle Road Hospital - the predecessor of the National Skin Centre (NSC).
The unit was closed in June 1992 and the remaining residents were moved to the Silra home.
Silra president, Dr Seow Chew Swee, told The New Paper that about 8,500 cases of leprosy cases have been recorded in Singapore since the registration of leprosy began in 1951.
He said over the past five years, the centre treated about 10 to 15 new leprosy patients every year.
He added: "They consist of two to three Singaporeans, and between 10 and 12 migrant workers and residents from countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar."
Dr Seow said Singaporean leprosy patients are usuallyover 50 years old.
"Most of them caught the infection between 20 and 30 years ago as leprosy has a very long incubation period."
The bacteria-borne disease is transmitted from one person to another through breathing or skin-to-skin contact.
If untreated, the skin of leprosy patients becomes red and lumpy, and tends to break out in ulcers.
Dr Seow said: "The affected nerves stop functioning and the muscles they control are unable to move the body parts, resulting in disabilities.
"Prolonged damage results in wasting of the muscles and eventual permanent physical disability."
It takes between six months and two years of regular treatment to cure a patient of leprosy. A month's worth of medication at government hospitals costs about $30.
Oldest resident is 94
There are 36 former leprosy patients - 14 women and 22 men - living at the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association (Silra) Home.
The home provides food, lodging, recreation and health-care services, and also teaches the patients handicraft skills and rehabilitative work.
Silra's executive officer, Mr Francis Tan, said the youngest resident is a 62-year-old man and the oldest, a 94-year-old woman.
The Silra Home was built in 1971 at Lorong Buangkok. It moved to its current Buangkok View location, a five-storey building, in 2005.
Silra president Dr Seow Chew Swee said the home is supported by the Community Chest and donations from the public.