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Spinalonga on Crete, Greece, one of the last leper colonies in Europe, closed in 1957.

A leper colony, leprosarium, or lazar house is a place to quarantine leprous people.



Abandoned Nun's Quarters at the Leper Colony on Chacachacare Island in Trinidad and Tobago

Leper colonies or houses became widespread in the Middle Ages, particularly in Europe and India, and often run by monastic orders. Historically, leprosy has been greatly feared because it causes visible disfigurement and disability, was incurable, and was commonly believed to be highly contagious. A leper colony administered by a Christian religious order was often called a lazar house, after Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers.[1]

Some colonies were located on islands or in remote locations in order to ensure quarantine, some on main roads, where donations would be made for their upkeep. Debate exists over the conditions found within historical leper colonies; while they are currently thought to have been grim and neglected places, there are some indications that life within a leper colony or house was no worse than the life of other, non-quarantined individuals. There is even doubt that the current definition of leprosy can be retrospectively applied to the medieval condition. What was classified as leprosy then covers a wide range of skin conditions that would be classified as distinct afflictions today.[2]

Some leper colonies issued their own money (such as tokens), in the belief that allowing lepers to handle regular money could spread the disease[citation needed].[3][4]*

Lepers were also subject to sumptuary laws (which were not very effective) and were made to carry horns or rattles when outside the colony, to warn others of their approach. The discovery of an effective treatment for leprosy in 1982, combined with the realization that leprosy was not a particularly communicable disease (roughly 95% of the population is naturally immune) led to the decline of leper colonies around the world. Some colonies remain in areas where treatment for leprosy is not universally available: for example, on Culion Island in the Palawan Archipelago, Philippines; or where traditional attitudes regarding leprosy as 'unclean' have discouraged re-integration. Famous or long-surviving leper colonies were located in Kalaupapa, Hawaii, USA; Okinawa, Japan; Chacachacare, Trinidad and Tobago; Spinalonga, Crete; Carville, Louisiana, USA; Zoquiapan, Mexico; Losheng Sanatorium in Taiwan; Sorokdo Island in South Korea; Derby on the coast of Western Australia; Malleswaram, Bangalore, India; and Fantome Island in the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon on the coast of North Queensland, Australia; Quail Island, New Zealand; Tichileşti, Romania; La Désirade, Guadeloupe. After Culion Island in the Philippines, the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium in Malaysia was the second largest colony in the world and was also a center for research for the disease. The first cases of bacterial resistance to dapsone, then the only medication for leprosy, were detected at this center.

Political aspects

In 2001, government-run leper colonies in Japan came under judicial scrutiny, leading to the determination that the Japanese government had mistreated the patients, and the District Court ordered Japan to pay compensation to former patients.[5] In 2002, a formal inquiry into these colonies was set up, and in March 2005 the policy was strongly denounced. "Japan's policy of absolute quarantine... did not have any scientific grounds."[6] The inquiry denounced not only the government and the doctors that are involved with the policy but also the court that repeatedly ruled in the favor of the government when the policy was challenged, as well as the media, which failed to report the plight of the victims.


  1. ^ "Patron Saints Index: Saint Lazarus". 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Unique experiment with currency notes(1970) Isaac Teoh, The Star, January-February, p7.
  4. ^ The numismatic aspects of leprosy(1993), McFadden, RR, Grost J, Marr DF. p.21 D.C.McDonald Associates, Inc. U.S.A.
  5. ^ "Koizumi apologises for leper colonies". BBC News. 2001-05-25. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  6. ^ "Japan's leprosy policy denounced". BBC News. 2005-03-02. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 

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