At Mumbai’s only specialised leprosy hospital, half of medical staff posts vacant

The operation theatre for reconstructive surgeries has been idle for a decade, and patients who need surgery are referred to tertiary care hospitals.

At the 131-year-old civic-run Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy in Wadala — the city’s only specialised leprosy hospital — half the posts of medical personnel are lying vacant.

The operation theatre for reconstructive surgeries has been idle for a decade, and patients who need surgery are referred to tertiary care hospitals.

The hospital was established in 1890 on 11 acres at the site of a military barracks in Wadala. The grounds are green and patients stay in wards designed liked cottages with tiled roofs. However, the medical facilities are not as satisfactory.

BMC records show that of 70 permanent sanctioned posts, 36 are lying vacant. The post of medical superintendent has been vacant for over two years. Of the 16 posts for junior health medical officers, 10 are vacant. The hospital has one sanctioned post for a nurse, which is also vacant. Of the 10 posts of ward boys, only four are occupied.

The vacant posts may be phased out eventually. Many medical personnel do not work here willingly. At the same, with leprosy officially eliminated from India, the disease no longer gets the fund allocation it needs, though doctors say that its prevalence is still noticeable.

A total of 61,941 patients were treated in the OPD at the hospital between 2019 and October 2021. In the same period, 2,001 patients were admitted.

Generally, the hospital has over 100 admitted patients at any given time. But during pandemic, the number dropped to 57 patients. Almost all of them are cured patients, who have been staying at the hospital for years. The hospital trained these patients as care-givers and got them to work.

The patients fill in gaps for manpower strength. For instance, a 65-year-old patient who has been staying at the hospital for decades works as an ‘ayah’ and is responsible for handing medicines to patients. She does not get a salary.

She told The Indian Express, “I don’t remember anything about my home. No one from my family has ever contacted me. This hospital gave me a place to stay and food to survive. I am happy to work for this hospital.”

In 2017, BMC hired two dressers on contract. But they were only available till afternoon. In the absence of dressers at night, the patients who are trained in self-care help other patients with bandages. “We have gone through the same pain, so we can take care of patients in case of bleeding. We do their bandages and give ointments when dressers aren’t available,” said a cured patient.

As the hospital lacks surgeons, patients are taken to tertiary care hospitals when surgery is required.

A doctor who was earlier attached with the hospital said that 10 years ago, the hospital used to conduct reconstructive surgeries for correction of deformities of limbs. Every Friday, the hospital would call one surgeon. But since his retirement, the OT has been lying idle.

When The Indian Express spoke to doctors and former officers, they blamed bureaucratic apathy in delaying or ignoring hiring.

For instance, they said, three medical officers from the hospital were shifted to the state health department a few months ago but no replacements have been appointed. Over 10 appointments have been pending since 2020. One candidate applied for the post of medical superintendent, but the appointment is pending for over a year.

Suresh Kakani, Additional Commissioner, BMC, who recently visited the hospital, said that it has adequate staff considering the low number of patients. “We are in the process of hiring more staffers. But the current strength is enough for the patients,” he said.

Dr Sanjeev Kamble, former joint director of health (TB and Leprosy), said that in 2005, India declared it had eliminated leprosy as a public health problem, but its prevalence is still evident.

“The authorities want to portray that leprosy cases have decreased. Budgets have also been reduced. Several posts under the leprosy elimination programme have been lying vacant for years across the state. Gradually, the posts are declared as ‘dying cadres’,” said Dr Kamble.

In the ongoing screening of leprosy that started in September 2021, BMC has already found 18 new confirmed leprosy patients.

“Although the government is saying they have eliminated leprosy and cases are less, we haven’t observed this at our centre. In fact, the cases of multibacillary, which are more infectious, haven’t reduced. We get 2-3 such patients on a monthly basis,” said Dr Chitra Nayak, head of dermatology, BYL Nair Hospital.

Since the advent of multidrug therapy — a combination of drugs that made leprosy curable — the stigma has reduced somewhat but medical professionals still shy away from working in a leprosy hospital.

“Many medical professionals don’t consider treating leprosy patients as a promising career. It is not as glamorous as other medical streams. So, it becomes tough to fill the posts,” said Dr V V Pai, director of Bombay Leprosy Project, an NGO. “I struggle to find doctors for my setup,” he added.

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