The Beginning - Polambakkam
How Damien Foundation came to be is an interesting anecdote and can be linked to one defining moment. It started with a timely gift of jute bags for sand-filling from India to Belgium in 1953 when it was ravaged by floods. This particular act culminated in a lasting friendship between the two countries. King Leopold III much impressed with this timely assistance, requested his advisors to explore ways to reciprocate in kind with a service of lasting impact. The idea of helping India on leprosy control because of its high disease burden came up and the proposal was accepted. Dr. Hemerijkx, an eminent Leprologist from Belgium working in Congo was requested to champion this initiative. He came to India in 1954 and along with Dr. Claire Vellut, a lady from Belgium with determination to serve the leprosy affected persons, started a leprosy Project in Polambakkam village near Madhuranthakam about 100 Kms from Chennai. By exploring nearby villages the team soon started their activities with financial support from Belgium through Belgium Foundation For Leprosy. The guidelines of National Leprosy Control Programme (NLCP) were followed. Thousands of leprosy affected persons benefited through roadside 'clinics under the tree'. The team then expanded their activities as more and more people started to reach the roadside clinics which were able to provide basic medical facilities to leprosy affected persons in the nearby villages.
Dr. Claire Vellut in Polambakkam Home
The demand for hospitalisation for acutely ill leprosy affected persons became imminent. The people from Belgium started to contribute funds for the construction of hospitals for tertiary care to leprosy affected persons. Damien Foundation soon started six major hospitals with active participation of the Government. The Memorandum of Agreement between Damien Foundation and the State Governments stipulated that a minimum of ten year support for the hospital, personnel and activities would be provided by Damien Foundation and later Government would take over the entire operations of hospital, staff and the activities. All the hospitals were later handed over to the respective State Governments.
In order to reach the un-reached, Damien Foundation expanded its Leprosy control activities through like-minded NGOs all over the country. The expansion became more rapid with the introduction of Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) by WHO which brought down the period of treatment from one year to six months. It was a sure cure for millions of leprosy affected persons in India.
The demand to expand the activities to cover many areas became more fervent and several Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) were roped in for Leprosy control activities. The adequate and uninterrupted supply of Multi Drug Therapy drugs and implementation of the programme professionally soon brought about a sea change in Leprosy control activities.
Redefining the Focus
The rapid expansion of activities by Damien Foundation, International Anti-Leprosy Foundation Members and the Government made a lasting impact on the Leprosy scenario. As the burden of Leprosy began to fall rapidly, Government of India decided to integrate Leprosy control activities with the general health system. Damien Foundation India Trust (DFIT) actively collaborated with the Government in building up the necessary skills in areas of case detection and case management. District Technical Support Teams (DTST) were formed and 22 districts of Bihar, 8 districts in Jharkhand and 6 districts in Uttar Pradesh were covered for Leprosy support. The teams helped the Government system to identify and treat thousands of cases.
It also became important for Damien Foundation to take up support to TB control activities for three reasons:
- DFIT had the expertise in this area
- The TB problem was becoming more rampant
- To ensure that the leprosy control activities become more cost effective
TB control activities were initiated in all the projects in 1996. The District Technical Support Teams in Bihar and in South which were initially responsible only for leprosy control were given additional responsibility in the form of TB control. Each team consisting of a senior medical professional with mobility support went around in the district, providing necessary support and guidance to the Government staff at various levels thereby improving the quality and reach of the programme.