I knew that leprosy still existed in parts of Africa and India, but had no idea there were so many people living with it in China. According to Brian Palmer of Slate, the government no longer forces people with leprosy into isolation, but many small colonies remain:
China has pledged to improve living conditions for the 20,000 leprosy sufferers living in its 600 state-run colonies. The country will consolidate the residents in 100 dedicated areas to offer better facilities and medical treatment. What’s life like in a Chinese leper colony?
Pretty quiet. Most of the leprosy communities were built on islands or mountaintops, cut off from the rest of society and reachable only by a strenuous hike. Between 25 and 100 people live in each village, occupying straw or mud-and-brick (PDF) houses built around a central courtyard. The average age among residents is 60 years old. Some are blind and bedridden; others lost fingers, toes, or entire limbs to the disease. But able-bodied villagers farm small plots and raise fish in ponds. (They get the rest of their food from visitors or buy it from itinerant peddlers using government money.) Some residents open up small tea shops or offer tailoring services if their disability allows.
Most of the people in these colonies have been treated and are not infectious. About 5,000 spouses and children without the disease choose to live with their family members in the settlements. Even though they can leave, many residents remain because they either have no where to go or they rely on these small communities for help and support.