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Hawaii’s Leprosy Colony

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a contagious disease that affects the skin and peripheral nerves.  From 1866 to 1969, Hawaii housed over 8000 leprosy patients on a remote peninsula called Kalaupapa.  During this time period, patients were arrested and taken away from the rest of the world to be shipped there in exile, isolated from the general public.  The leprosy colony became a kind of lonesome hospice; Kalaupapa was surrounded by cliffs and rough sea. However, the patients made Kalaupapa emerge and thrive as a small town community.  In fact, the patients of Kalaupapa shifted from being complete strangers to becoming a small and strong network of friends and family.  In fact, after the Hawaii leprosy isolation law was abolished in 1969, half of them decided to remain in Kalaupapa.

In this networks situation, the Kalaupapa leprosy colony formed due to the sudden isolation that was thrusted upon them.  Originally, they were likely to have been a part of the “global friendship network”.  Yet, we cannot call the colony its own “component”.  When considering the likelihood of having isolated, multiple-node components, it seems very unlikely that more than one big component exists.  However, the bottleneck effect would explain the existence of a network that is technically connected, but develops differently and at a different rate.  Kalaupapa represents the smaller end of the bottleneck, which relies on a flow of resources through the bottleneck from the larger end, the rest of the world.  Although the peninsula was geographically isolated, the colony was never technically alone—because their network was formed from the bigger network.

The spread of leprosy itself also demonstrates the power of biological networks.  According to The Guardian article, Leprosy spreads through the body quickly because the leprosy bacterium activates a different set of genes that changes nerve cells into stem cells so they can infect other areas of the body.  The infected nerve cells form a connection with every cell they turn into a stem cell.  The network continues growing in this way, but also a lot faster when the stem cells go on to other parts.  Compared to the nerve cell-to-nerve cell connections, these connections are weaker since the direct interaction is temporary.  However, this stems back to Chapter 3.3 of Networks, Crowds, and Markets, which makes a relevant point that weak ties are more crucial in connective structure to “hold together disparate communities”.  The “strength in weak ties” would explain the coherence of a disease that can spread in multiple areas simultaneously.  Large networks with expansive weak ties are powerful systems that can either catalyze a good, or in this case, a bad outcome depending on its surrounding circumstances.



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