• James Armstrong

Local charity finds leprosy treatment for Peruvian patient


PHOTO COURTESY ROBERT MCKINNON

A recent lack of the drug thalidomide in Peru puts the lives of those suffering from leprosy, such as Lewis, at risk of further medical complications or even death.

Lewis, a 22 year-old resident of the Pure Art Hub in Pucallpa, Peru is a very ill young man suffering from Hansen’s disease more commonly known as leprosy.

“Brigitte and I were in Peru for inauguration of the new daycare centre,” Rigaud resident Robert McKinnon said of his wife with whom he runs the Pure Art foundation.

The couple discovered that Lewis’s treatment with the drug thalidomide that had started earlier in the year had been stopped.

“There is no thalidomide available in all of Peru,” McKinnon reported adding they had been following Lewis’s case since their trip to the centre in Pucallpa in March of 2018. “Those initial treatments in March made all the difference,” said McKinnon. “He was beginning to thrive.”

Thalidomide was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of leprosy in 1998. It was first marketed in the late 1950s to combat morning sickness and nausea in pregnant women. Tragically, the drug was discovered to be associated with congenital abnormality causing severe birth defects in the children of women who had ingested the drug in the first six weeks of pregnancy.

Though its use for morning sickness was halted in North America in the early 1960s, research into its immunotherapeutic benefits continued. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), thalidomide was found to be useful in the treatment of leprosy. Limited supplies of the drug were made available to doctors under strictly controlled circumstances for the treatment of leprosy. In January, 2017 it was approved by Health Canada as a treatment for certain blood cancers.

Finding a treatment source

As for finding a source of the drug to continue Lewis’s treatment, McKinnon said he was following up on any possibility.

“It’s a desperate situation,” he said. “If Lewis doesn’t get the treatment he will die. All it takes is one person who has contact with someone who has access to a supply,” he said adding that he has the prescription for the medication from Lewis’s physician.

“Leprosy is a curable disease,” McKinnon pointed out adding that in this case there are cultural and economic issues that complicate the situation. “His father wants him to seek traditional healing methods. That means taking him into the jungle to a shaman. I’m afraid he won’t survive that trip,” said McKinnon. Lewis is one of 11 children in a family that lives in the most economically deprived, poorest area of Pucallpa. Hospitals are viewed with suspicion as places where people go to die. McKinnon expressed concern that Lewis needed an advocate to make certain he was receiving all the healthcare services available to him.

“He has said that he wants to go to the hospital and that he wants to live,” said McKinnon.

Good news

On Friday, June 22 McKinnon received some encouraging news from the Canada Leprosy Mission (effect:hope). “They are the one organization that has not given up. They put us in touch with a physician in Brazil where the medication is available,” said McKinnon. “I have just received word from this doctor that he has agreed to send a shipment to Pucallpa for Lewis as soon as possible.”

The Pure Art Foundation is a registered Canadian charity based in Hudson, Quebec. Its goal is to raise funds to alleviate poverty and improve communities one program at a time. The Hub of Hope in Pucallpa, Peru is an example of the foundation in action.

Robert and Brigitte McKinnon, the founders of the organization, were attending the opening of the daycare centre in the community dedicated to the memory of their son Ben.

Update

The Journal learned just before going to press that Dr. Milton, the Brazilian physician, has sent an emergency supply of 90 thalidomide tablets to Dr. Lucas in Pucallpa, Peru by express courier. “Dr. Lucas is Lewis’s physician and he should be receiving the pills today,” said McKinnon who had received the news early Wednesday morning, June 27.

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