Thomas Rea, considered as the father and forerunner of leprosy treatment and who freed leprosy patients from the society's stigma, passed away on Feb. 7 at the age of 86.
According to his son, the movie critic Steven Rea, the doctor spent the last hours of his life in his house located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles. Rea had been battling a form of blood cancer until his death.
Rea made waves in the medical field in his collaboration with Dr. Robert Modlin in the discovery of the role of the immune system in the development of skin lesion and growth-common symptoms of leprosy or the Hansen's disease.
They, then, patented drugs and treatment programs that debunked the stigma that had its roots from the Biblical times that can finally declare the disease as non-contagious and 'entirely controllable.' This gives patients the chance to live normal lives.
Rea had its second contribution in the treatment of leprosy when he invented thalidomide specifically aimed in treating a more complex form of the disease. Initially, the drug was criticized for its possible side effects among pregnant mothers as it was said to cause birth defects among newborns. However, Rea successfully gets a nod from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which further indicated several limitations for the product.
Dr. David Peng, head of the dermatology department at USC's Keck School of Medicine, attested to Rea's warm and genuine concern among leprosy patients by shaking hands with them even without protection.
"He'd come straight in and shake their hands, no gloves on, and it would empower them to realize that they could get better," Dr. Peng said.
Rea's first experience in dealing with patients with Hansen's disease started while working in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army in Korea and in the dermatology department at New York University. He transferred to Los Angeles in 1970.
Figures from the World Health Organization said that the number of leprosy patients had reached 180, 628 in 2013. A new batch of 215, 656 new cases were reported in a global scale composed of 103 countries.
Leprosy can be transferred via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases. Although considered chronic, leprosy is declared as not highly infectious.