AN aid worker from the region has achieved a major landmark in helping women with leprosy who are regarded as social outcasts in an Indian city.

After months of battling with bureacracy, Leah Pattison and her co-founder of the charity, Women in Need, Usha Patil, have been given the go-ahead to open a hospital amid the slums of Nagpur, in central India.

Miss Pattison, who is spending her first Christmas at home in Frosterley, Weardale, County Durham, for ten years: said: “This means we can now provide full nursing care for women who are simply left in the streets to die.”

Work on building the hospital on a one-and-a-half acre site has already started and should be complete in a year’s time. The hospital will have beds for 40 patients and will be able to treat up to 300 outpatients a day.

It will mean a huge improvement from the days when the two women worked at drop-in centres in Nagpur for more than 11 years.

“Because of the social stigma attached to leprosy and other diseases, such as aids and HIV, and mental illness, women are just abandoned in the streets by their families,”

said Miss Pattison.

“Some of them camp in the grounds of hospitals in the hope they will be treated.

They are simply dumped there and left to die “Their hands are so deformed they burn them while trying to cook meals.

“We have come across elderly women left in the street, their bodies covered with maggots.”

Although Nagpur – with a population of about six million – has become a booming city, mainly due to a lot of foreign investment in heavy industry, it has still not come to terms with the growing problem of sex-related diseases among its women.

Modern medicines have helped to decrease the deforming effects of leprosy.

But the disease is still rife in the village of Dattapur, only 45 miles away. In 1936, it was designated India’s first official leper colony – and remains so today.

“Some women have spent as long as 40 years in the colony. We hired two buses to take them outside for the first time in their lives,” said Miss Pattison.

“It proved to be an exciting and exhilerating experience for both them and us.”

Miss Pattison, 38, first went to India as a volunteer worker.

She now speaks fluent Marati – the local dialect – and has no plans to return home to Britain on a permanent basis.

“I never planned on doing this work, but I now regard it as very much a challenge.

There is an element of excitement about it and you can feel very privileged by helping a person stay alive.”

Her Christmas in Weardale will be a family occasion. It will be the first one in 15 years that she has shared with her parents, Derek and Sandy, brother Mark, who is a journalist in Manchester, and sister, Rachael, a schoolteacher in China.

■ For more details about the Women in Need charity go to