A novel idea

May 1, 2005

"An archaeobiologist and his former lover travel from San Francisco to the Himalayas to the Arctic Circle on a danger-filled quest for a cure to a drug-resistant form of leprosy . . . "

And the plot only thickens from there. Although the disease in the novel, "Reign of the Rat," is exaggerated for dramatic purposes, the novel is based partly on scientific information.

Gil Smolin, MD, clinical professor and researcher at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, wrote the novel after having examined and treated patients with leprosy in Nepal and India. He has written on leprosy, as well as other scientific subjects.

Life from a different view Dr. Smolin was initially dismayed by the living conditions and the idea of visiting a people inflicted with such a terrible disease.

"I'll admit, on my first visit to a leprosy colony, I was quite apprehensive," he said. "I look at pictures of me there and see that my arms were folded all the time. I realize now that I was afraid of what I didn't understand. Because people who have leprosy in India and Nepal are considered 'low caste,' they were forced to live in horrible conditions. Some literally lived in a swamp filled with snakes, poisonous spiders, mosquitoes, and bats that whirled overhead."

Dr. Smolin will never forget the night he stayed overnight in a colony.

"Right then, the lights were turned off in the entire village to conserve energy," Dr. Smolin said. "Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep that night."

A desire to help Dr. Smolin continued to research leprosy. He came to understand that he could put many of his worries to rest.

"Yes, leprosy is contagious, but not highly contagious," he said. "I realized that my short visits would likely not harm me and that I could reach out to them and touch them.

"I was also relieved, yet saddened, to learn that the disease is treatable," Dr. Smolin said. "With these people suffering as they had for so long, 1 to 2 years of medication could have completely cured them. Unfortunately, at that time, the government was not willing to spend the money, time, and energy toward helping the 'low caste' society."