Tomorrow (30 January 2011) is World Leprosy Day – a day to remember that this biblical-times disease is still with us and millions of people across the word still suffer from it. To mark the day, over 100 countries will undertake activities and advocacy to raise awareness of leprosy and to ensure that this neglected tropical disease is not ignored.
When I was very young – just after high school – I worked in a leprosy centre in Polambakam, Tamil Nadu, India, for a few months. At the time, the multidrug therapy hadn’t been developed yet and the stigma of the disease was so strong that very few Indian medics wanted to work there.
Leprosy has now been curable for the past 25 years, but is still a global problem, affecting more than 15 million people worldwide (including 100 in the UK), and each year, nearly a quarter of a million new cases are detected - that is almost one person diagnosed every two minutes. Over half of all newly-reported cases of leprosy occur in India.
And the stigma of the disease is still as present as it was when I was young and often more damaging than the disease itself. Many countries around the world, including India, China and even England, still have discriminatory policies that mirror the social exclusion people with leprosy face daily. Too often, people with leprosy cannot get married, lose their jobs, are rejected by their families and communities, and their children are not allowed to go to school.
“I can endure losing fingers and toes, but not the rejection of my family nor my family being rejected by society,” said one sufferer at Kothara hospital in India, run by the Leprosy Mission England & Wales (TLMEW).
On World Leprosy Day, schools, groups and churches will organize activities and events focused on advocacy, education and fundraising for leprosy. In the countries where leprosy exists, the day will be used to lobby governments and to publicly campaign to dispel some of the myths about the disease: that it is highly contagious and not curable. Since 1982 leprosy has been curable with a combination of antibiotics called multidrug therapy.
Leprosy is a mildly infectious disease, which attacks the nerves. If treated early there will be no long-term damage, but if treatment is delayed the person may develop permanent nerve damage and disability.
The Leprosy Mission England & Wales provides a free resource pack to help people mark the day.