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U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa staff members and Japanese interns from the hospital toured Airaku En, a former Japanese national leprosy sanitarium, Tuesday with Dr. Kazuo Yamauchi, center in the white coat, the director of the community. In the foreground is a statue of the community’s founder, Keisei Aoki.
U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa staff members and Japanese interns from the hospital toured Airaku En, a former Japanese national leprosy sanitarium, Tuesday with Dr. Kazuo Yamauchi, center in the white coat, the director of the community. In the foreground is a statue of the community’s founder, Keisei Aoki. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

NAGO, Okinawa — Navy medical personnel traveled here Tuesday to learn more about what was once known as the National Leprosy Sanitarium.

The community, which is now called Okinawa Airaku En, is located just north of Nago on the small island of Yagaji, which is accessible from Okinawa via a bridge. Currently there are a little more than 300 patients at the facility, with the average age being 77, according to Dr. Kazuo Yamauchi, the director of the community. The youngest patient is 45 and the oldest is 101.

Those who toured the facility were from U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa’s Dermatology Clinic, a flight surgeon from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and four Japanese medical students who are interning at the naval hospital. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Eric Parlette, the head of the Dermatology Clinic, organized the tour simply because he had heard about the community and was interested in seeing it.

“The care of a leper is usually initiated by dermatology,” Parlette said. “But a lot of help is needed from other specialties, so I just wanted to see what they have here.”

This is the first time any naval hospital staff members have visited the community since 1972, Yamauchi said.

“It was an opportunity for us to show them the medical, as well as other facilities and historical background of our community,” he said.

Parlette said he has seen patients with leprosy before, when he was stationed in San Diego and volunteered at a public health center. He has also spent some time at the main U.S. leprosy research facility in Baton Rouge, La.

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease that usually affects the skin and peripheral nerves, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“With leprosy, there’s a lot of history, even back to biblical times, and there is a lot of misrepresentation in the public eye,” Parlette said. “It’s a curable and treatable disease, which most people don’t realize. Leprosy itself won’t kill you, but the complications can.”

After arriving, the visitors from the naval hospital sat down with Yamauchi for a briefing about leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. The briefing was followed by lunch and a tour of the facility, which includes four nursing homes and a 90-bed hospital that also can be used by the local community.

“It’s a very nice facility,” Parlette said. “They have a very professional and knowledgeable staff, and they take excellent care of the patients there. I thought the visit was really good.”

Parlette said he and his staff hope to continue to build a relationship with Airaku En.

“It would be nice to create some type of volunteer activity here, whether it’s medical or some other type of assistance,” Parlette said.

Yamauchi said those that live in the community are no longer considered “patients,” so there is no need for dermatological treatment. But he did add that visits from the hospital staff are welcome any time.

“We have a long history of friendly relations with the military community,” Yamauchi said.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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