Saturday, 25 January 2014

World Leprosy Day 2014 - shining a light on the ‘hidden’ disease

A young woman affected by leprosy in Myanmar (Burma) is benefiting from a new mobile prostheses clinic.
Credit: Leprosy Mission

This Sunday, 26 January, is World Leprosy Day 2014. Few people might take notice; few might even know that leprosy still exits today. But it does.
For me, World Leprosy Day always has a special resonance because when I was very young – just after high school – I worked in a leprosy centre for a few months. It was in Polambakkam in beautiful Tamil Nadu in the south of India.  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, so volunteers like me were brought in to help clean infected wounds and bandage damaged limbs.
Leprosy has now been curable for the past 25 years or so, but is still a global problem, affecting more than 15 million people worldwide  (including 100 in the UK), and each year, at least a quarter of a million new cases are detected - that is almost one person diagnosed every two minutes (World Health Organization). Over half of all newly-reported cases occur in India. And the stigma is still as damaging as it was when I was young.
On World Leprosy Day, the Leprosy Mission England and Wales, an international organization working to eradicate the causes and consequences of the disease, wants to “shine a light on this hidden disease.” Here is their message:
Did you know there are still leprosy colonies in the world today where people are ‘sent’ or ‘seek refuge’?  There are 850 in India.
Did you know that stigma surrounding leprosy in many parts of the world today is akin to what it was during Biblical times?  Even beggars begging for their own survival will often shun a leprosy-affected person.
Did you know that leprosy is completely curable with a simple combination of antibiotics?  Yet 85 per cent of people in Delhi, India - still believe there is no cure.
We’re confident that leprosy rates would be slashed across the world today were it not still shrouded in age-old stigma.  Three million people would not be living with irreversible disabilities as a result of late treatment of the disease.
What other disease sees someone outcast from their family, sacked from their job, thrown off public transport and pushed to the very fringes of society?
The tragedy is when leprosy is ‘hidden’. It damages and disables, slowly destroying each aspect of a person’s life.  If it wasn’t for stigma and misunderstandings surrounding leprosy then people would seek treatment and all healthcare professionals would recognise its symptoms.
Leprosy is a disease.  Those affected deserve dignity not discrimination. Please spread the word.
For more information, click here.

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