Leprosy – a 21st century scourge

Vidya

Vidya

What disease is easily curable yet disables if left untreated and sees those affected rejected by their families, employers and communities and pushed to the very fringes of society? The answer is leprosy.

Despite there having been an effective cure for leprosy since 1982, stigma surrounding the disease remains akin to biblical times in parts of the world today. It is a disease shrouded in myths and misunderstandings. For instance, despite more than half of new leprosy cases found globally each year being diagnosed in India, 85 per cent of the population of Delhi still believes leprosy is incurable. Tragically, people widely believe leprosy is a curse for something they have done in a previous life and even the beggars shun those affected by this mildly-infectious disease.

The Leprosy Mission is an international Christian development organisation transforming and empowering the lives of people affected by leprosy. There are around a quarter of a million new cases of leprosy diagnosed each year and more than three million people globally are living with permanent disabilities as a result of late treatment.

Leprosy causes nerve damage and, if left untreated, leads to a loss of sensation in the hands and feet meaning everyday activities are fraught with danger. Burns go unrecognised and stones in shoes unnoticed, causing ulcers to develop and leading to the shortening of limbs. Leprosy also damages nerves in the face, causing problems with blinking. Robbed of this simple action a person can go blind.

Inspired by the love of Jesus, The Leprosy Mission diagnoses, treats and offers specialist care, including reconstructive surgery, to leprosy patients as well as education, vocational training, housing and sanitation.

Pictured is 28-year-old Vidya in India who was forced into prostitution as the only way of feeding herself and her mother – just because she had leprosy. Vidya thought her ticket out of poverty came five years ago when she was given a loan to set up a small business selling material. But no one would buy from her because her hands had become ‘clawed’ because of leprosy.

So in order to feed herself and her mother, Vidya opened the shop in the evening for sex work. At risk of HIV and violence, she waited until it was dark when the men had had enough to drink and did not notice her leprosy-affected hands and feet. The Leprosy Mission is now helping Vidya piece together her life and provide her with training so that she can earn an honourable living.

The Leprosy Mission’s focus is increasingly to help people affected by leprosy become self-sufficient. Its Challenging Anti-Leprosy Legislation (CALL) project in India has enabled thousands of leprosy-affected people to access 6,200 state benefits since 2010.

Although poverty is widespread – India still remains home to a third of the world’s poorest people – state benefits are increasingly being made available, including government job schemes.

People affected by leprosy, however, often have such low self-esteem that they do not see themselves as part of society. The Leprosy Mission works to build these people’s confidence as well as help reintegrate them into mainstream society.

A CALL project worker told Dhondhi and his neighbours in the Rajiv Gandhi Kushth Ashram leprosy colony about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This is a government-sponsored welfare scheme promising 100 days of employment to every unemployed person living below the poverty line.

Following efforts to boost their self-confidence, individuals applied to the scheme. They were assessed to see if they were physically fit to work as labourers and issued with government Job Cards.

The government officer also asked the local bank manager to open accounts for the Job Card holders, a requirement of the scheme. The bank manager, however, refused to open accounts for Dhondhi and his friends when he found out they lived in a leprosy colony.

Members of the CALL team then met with the branch manager and explained that Dhondhi and his neighbours were completely cured of leprosy and were fit and capable of working. The government office also put pressure on the bank manager and the incident was even reported in the local newspaper.

The bank manager eventually apologised and opened accounts for Dhondhi and his friends. They now earn enough to support themselves and other members of their community and are optimistic about securing permanent work after completing the 100 days the scheme offers.

For more information visit www.leprosymission.org.uk