Antonia López González (Guareña, Badajoz, 1967), Dr. Amazonas –or, as she prefers, Tony– has been working for more than 32 years among the communities of the Purús River, the main tributary of the Amazon. Despite her modesty (“what matters are the people, not the person, not my person”), she is a world authority on infectious and tropical diseases. She has been in Spain for a few days to present her book.
The Italian label Dylan has published the work in that language, What we do not know exists. There will also be French, Italian and English versions. The publisher has given the author a thousand copies in Spanish. The sales will go to her NGO, Asociación Comité Ipiranga. Almost all the books have already been sold in presentations such as the one that Dr. López recently starred in Barcelona, at the Brasería Gallega (Casanova, 238).
Who are the Hanseanians of the Amazon?
Sick people who need to be treated. People from Amazonian communities plagued by Hansen's disease for centuries. There are those who maintain that at other times in history this same disease was also very virulent in other parts of Brazil and the patients were transferred to Manaus. And then into the Amazon to ensure that they were isolated... That would explain why there are so many patients there today.
Do they have a cure?
Yes, it must be emphasized. The workhorse is an early diagnosis to never have to reach amputations, as happened 40 or 50 years ago. But these are communities that have inhabitants who are in very close contact with each other, so the bacillus is transmitted rapidly. The patients also live in a very precarious situation and from an early age they suffer from other pathologies that aggravate their health...
An ideal breeding ground for the spread of the disease...
Many readers still won't know what we're talking about. Is the fact that we have renamed leprosy Hansen's disease due to the need to destroy stigmas?
Another very important workhorse, yes. Our obsession is to convince patients that this disease is one more, not a biblical curse. Nor do they have burnt blood, as they say. The demand to change the name is given by the pedagogy to convince them that they are not doomed. For this reason, the international day of Hansen's disease is also celebrated on the last Sunday of January.
But in Europe people keep talking about leprosy
Yes, repeatedly. The people who suffer from it, among whom I live, are bothered by that term. When we have asked for the new name to be used in some international forums, they have answered that everyone knows what we are talking about. But, I insist, what matters are the people, the sick. And they are bothered by stigmas.
Many people will believe that this ailment is a thing of the past, something already overcome.
And it is not. We have renamed the disease, but we have not eradicated it. In Spain there were around twenty cases last year, but here the context greatly facilitates healing. That is why my book is called What we do not know exists. Years ago, when we began to warn about the high incidence of this disease in the Amazon, they did not believe us, they said that we were exaggerating, that it was a wrong diagnosis.
How do you live in the Hansenian communities of the Amazon?
Everyone is sick or incubating a disease. Whether it's Hansen's, malaria, tuberculosis... I'll explain another piece of information to emphasize the importance of language and to demystify according to what things. Many patients initially resisted being treated because they considered themselves irretrievably doomed. Sometimes, they preferred to turn their back on reality, not to know it, for fear that others would reject them.
In his book he recounts the hug and gratitude of a child when he realizes that he is suffering from a disease, not a curse.
Our project is divided into emergency and preventive work. We went with a hospital ship to isolated communities not only to fight Hansen's disease. Also malaria, which is endemic, dengue, Zika, black hepatitis... Pedagogy, our preventive work, we do in rural health schools and it is essential to demystify the disease and alleviate children like that one, Alan.
How did you feel when Alan hugged you?
That boy taught me a lesson. He taught me the value of patience. They set the pace for you. There the schedules and the calendar are different. After years and years, we have managed to get them to come forward voluntarily as soon as they have symptoms. That is very important. We doctors have to work horizontally, not vertically, putting ourselves at the level of patients and emphasizing that they are the ones who matter most.
The treatment lasts for months.
In one or two years, Hansen's disease can be cured, but it must be taken into account that many patients have other pathologies, such as malaria or dengue, which make it necessary to suspend and restart treatment against hanseniasis. Other infectious diseases are investigated more than this, which is the oldest, more than 3,000 years old. It does not have a vaccine, but it does have treatment. It is transmitted by air, not by contact.
Have you been infected?
From Hansen's disease? No, I've been lucky. But some members of my team have been infected (because you see me, but I am not alone: I have a great team by my side).
And they healed, of course.