Healing touch

(China Daily) Updated: 2016-10-03

Healing touch

A Malian doctor combines modern and traditional medicine to ease the suffering of leprosy and AIDS patients in Southwest China, Hu Yongqi reports from Kunming, Yunnan province.

For many parents, collecting your children after school is an everyday chore. For Dr Diarra Boubacar, it was recently a rare treat.

At 3 on a recent afternoon in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, the children were peacefully slumbering on the back seat after a half-hour of joyous chatter with their father. Driving along in the January sunshine, Diarra was whistling, clearly exhilarated at the chance to accompany the children.

The 49-year-old doctor is stationed in Honghe Hani and Yi autonomous prefecture, nearly 300 kilometers southeast of Kunming, during the week. For more than 15 years, he has worked with a nonprofit enterprise there to help leprosy and AIDS patients.

"The service for the nonprofit treatment of leprosy and AIDS consumed most of my time, and I owe too much to my wife and children," says Diarra. His 6-year-old daughter Jehovah Nissi says her father is often not at home, and she always misses him during the parents' meetings at her school.

Born in the African country of Mali, Diarra continued a family tradition of training to be a doctor at Malian Medical College, earning his degree in 1984. He was granted a full scholarship in the former Soviet Union for further study, but instead he turned to a government-sponsored program to study in China.

In his freshman year, Diarra was the only one in his class to score a grade as low as 40 percent. The frustrated man did not buckle under the hardship of learning the ancient Chinese language to read traditional Chinese medicine classics, and he developed an obsession with TCM. In 1994, he became the first foreigner to get a PhD in acupuncture at the Chengdu Traditional Chinese Medicine College.

After obtaining his medical degree in Sichuan province, he joined Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) to help patients in remote villages in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

Since Diarra arrived in Yunnan in 1999, he has treated at least 5,000 leprosy and AIDS patients, and trained 1,140 doctors for rural clinics in Honghe, Lijiang city, and Nujiang Lisu autonomous prefecture. Diarra also distributes medicine and healthcare necessities donated by the World Health Organization, via a nonprofit organization in Italy. The WHO has made a multi-drug treatment for leprosy available worldwide since 1995.

Historical texts suggest leprosy was first identified in the ancient civilizations of China, India and Egypt, according to the World Health Organization, but the disease was officially eliminated at the national level in China in 1982. That means there is less than one case per 100,000 population, but in subtropical pockets of the country's southwest, the condition lingers.

Historically, leprosy patients were ostracized by people in their communities, who were fearful because the disease was incurable and falsely thought to be highly infectious. Various health authorities estimate that there are 200,000 people in China today who have recovered from leprosy, but the majority remain disabled, with conditions ranging from blindness to amputated fingers, arms and legs.

Caused by a bacterium, leprosy is passed via respiratory droplets among people in close and prolonged contact. Such transmission is rare, as 95 percent of people are naturally immune.

Leprosy affects the skin, mucous membranes, peripheral nerves and eyes. With early diagnosis and treatment, however, the disease leaves no traces. There are about 3,500 active cases today, but a lack of reporting due to the social stigma remains a big challenge today. In remote areas, sufferers are still spurned by their families and continue to live in isolated communities with others with the disease.

Lacking medical knowledge, most leprosy patients don't know how to cure the disease, Diarra says. Some of them try to stitch the broken skin that has dried up and split, but that just makes the condition worse. Diarra says sufferers should moisten the body with clean water or cream as much as they can.

"Leprosy destroys peripheral nerves so that patients won't feel any injury," he says. "One patient didn't realize his calf had been burnt until his wife saw that a piece of flesh was already gone."

People are often afraid to approach leprosy cases, but as long as the patient is taking the proper medicine, the disease won't be infectious within one week, Diarra says.

Last March while on a train bound for Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, Diarra heard a loudspeaker announcement asking for a doctor to help a diarrhea-stricken child. The doctor leaped to his feet and quickly went to work with his silver acupuncture needles on the 11-year-old boy, who was suffering sudden fever and convulsions. Immediately, the boy stopped cramping. "That is the magic of TCM," Diarra says.

Yang Mei, who married Diarra in 2001, says each of his weekly journeys means perils in precipitous areas in Yunnan. Several years ago, Diarra transported a vehicle of medicine to a secluded village in Yuanyang county in Honghe prefecture. The rain, trifling as it had appeared in the morning, started to pour down and trapped his car on a mountain slope, tilting the vehicle 45 degrees. Landslides worsened the situation, cutting the highways into interrupted sections. The volunteers were frightened and got out of the car to flee to safety. Local officials were ushering them at the other end of the road.

"As a wife, I hope he comes home safe every day. But I also know he loves to cure the patients, give them medicines, and help them build houses," Yang says.

In September 2012, Diarra rushed his old jeep to quake-hit Yiliang county in northeastern Yunnan with some relief supplies, using his rich experience driving rugged roads in mountainous areas. One old villager asked Diarra where he was from, and he joked that his black skin was sunburnt in the region.

His cheerful enthusiasm has won him much love. The villagers and volunteers celebrated his birthday with moon cakes and eggs. "Yunnan is a beautiful place and also diverse in landscape and cultures. The smile on people's faces encourages me to go on," he says.

Over the past 20 years, Diarra has mastered Mandarin like a native speaker and also picked up a dozen dialects such as the one widely spoken in Yunnan. In addition, he says his love of Chinese food make him much like other expats in the country.

"The time in Sichuan and Yunnan has trained me to get used to spicy food, especially in Yunnan where hundreds of 'weird' foods are served to guests. Some of them are not my favorite, but I like to try," Diarra says, displaying his white teeth in a big grin.

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