Time we consigned leprosy to the dustbin of history

This article was originally published in The Herald.

During the past year COVID-19 has affected all of our lives. While none of us are exempt from the impact of the virus, our experiences of living during the pandemic can be very different.

Twenty-four year-old Naleem lives in Bihar in eastern India. She has leprosy, a bacterial infection which causes nerve damage, and left untreated, can lead to a loss of feeling or mobility in the hands and feet and around the eyes. This can result in permanent disfigurement and disability.

Last February Naleem was referred by a hospital in Delhi for treatment of a foot ulcer and for the correction of a deformity in her left hand – both a result of leprosy. Her planned hospital admission in March was postponed as a result of the country wide lockdown.

With public transportation forbidden, Naleem was stuck in her native village and had only enough medicine to last her until the end of the month. The Leprosy Mission’s Shahdara Hospital offered telecounselling services and prescribed her more medication but could do nothing about her ulcer.

Naleem became worried and depressed. The local doctor in her village was reluctant to treat her because of the stigma surrounding the disease and her wound became severely infected. Thankfully, a limited number of trains began to run again in June and today Naleem is ulcer free after regular treatment and around ten weeks in hospital.

Naleem is fortunate. For many others with leprosy, the inability to access clinical care has meant the progression of a disease which can be cured with early diagnosis and treatment. Furthermore, cases in communities are increasing. Although leprosy is not contagious and cannot be spread by touch, it is infectious, passed primarily through droplets from the mouth and nose.

Supplies of the drugs used to treat leprosy have been running low owing to logistical problems as a result of COVID. There are also shortages of the preventative medication given to known contacts of people newly diagnosed with leprosy to reduce the likelihood of them developing it themselves.

The Leprosy Mission Scotland has been working alongside our sister organisations around the world towards a global goal of zero leprosy transmission by 2035.

COVID, however, has also mean a slowing done in the vital research work which plays a big part in enabling this aim to be achieved.

In spite of all of this, those of us who have devoted much of our lives to ending leprosy remain optimistic. Sunday is World Leprosy Day and it’s an opportunity to reflect on the contribution we can all make towards the zero transmission target.

As lockdown eases across the world, financial support will be needed more than ever. In the last year we have all seen what can be accomplished with the right resources – we are now rolling out vaccines for a new and deadly virus. Imagine what we could do for the millions of people with leprosy with the determination and funds. It’s about time that leprosy, a horrific disease which causes suffering among many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, was consigned to history.

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29th Jan 2021

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Opinions are the authors own and not necessarily those of The Leprosy Mission Scotland.