Brazil banishes leprosy with education and hard currency

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The Independent US

Walter Eugenio Soares has seen all sorts of things during the 75 years he has lived in the slum. But nothing sticks in his mind more than the disease that eats the body away.

He has seen this twice in his life: once as a teenager and once in middle age. Both times the victims were children whose skin, he recalls, glowed with red boils and then gradually rotted into nothing. The elderly man, all skin and bone with big brown eyes, doesn't know the disease's name but he knows what caused it. "Bad water, that terrible smell and rubbish in the street," he said. "That's what made them sick."

In the beautiful, colonial city of Salvador, in the north-east of Brazil, death by leprosy, cholera and dysentery is not uncommon. Neither is an infant mortality rate of nearly 30 per cent. Now, for the first time in the city's 451-year history, early death and the spread of killer diseases is being checked by a massive investment of funds.

Blue Bahia - named after Salvador's state - is a £400mproject providing 80 per cent of the city's houses with their first ever sanitation facilities. It is the biggest public sanitation programme in Latin America

Most of the city's three million people live in abject poverty and sanitation has never been a priority for an overstretched public purse. Generations of people, like Walter, have lived and died in homes that open on to vermin-infested streets filled with raw sewage.

The nine members of Walter's family, who live in his two-room, ramshackle, wooden house, were well-used to the stream of filth that met them every time they opened the front door. He said: "It was terrible for children. They used to play in the street next to all that rubbish. There were rats and everything out there. I used to be very scared for them but there was nothing I could do - no one collected our rubbish."

Funded by the InterAmerican Development Bank and the World Bank, the Blue Bahia programme - which has created nearly 20,000 direct jobs for the city since 1995- has an expected completion date of 2002.

Before the project started, waste was thrown into the street and only washed away during heavy rain. It was also thrown into rivers and consequently thousands of gallons of untreated sewage went directly into the sea, causing environmental damage to the city'scoastline. Roberto Moussalem de Andrade, Bahia's Infrastructure minister, said: "This is not just about improving sanitation it is also about providing better water supply, rubbish collection and environmental education. Before we started, 60 per cent of our babies were taken to hospital with sanitation related illnesses."

Studies by the Federal University of Bahia, show that since 1990, the infant mortality rate has dropped by 21.5 per cent - a figure they directly attribute to better sanitation.

Cynthia Pereiro do Nascimento's life has changed completely since workmen arrived in her street six months ago. The 30-year-old mother of two was always scared that her children would pick up some kind of illness when playing outside. She said: "They always wore shoes and when they came in I tried to wash them as best as I could. But my son especially kept picking up all sorts of skin infections.

"Since the men finished work our life has changed completely. I used to hate living here and now it's wonderful because it's so clean. The only thing I've got left to complain about is walking up the hill."