Leprosy is not a disease of Biblical times, it is a modern blight on humanity that does not need to exist today, according to a leading UK charity.
Despite being entirely treatable, prejudice surrounding leprosy sees it remain a resolutely stubborn disease to tackle in countries like Nepal, meaning many people are left with avoidable life-long disabilities including blindness.
In a bid to finally rid the country of the ancient disease, The Leprosy Mission has launched a campaign to rid the country of the disease – with UK Aid set to match every pound donated from 27 January to 27 April.
Following the advent of Multidrug Therapy in 1982, a combination of three antibiotics providing a complete cure for leprosy, the number of new leprosy cases globally plummeted from millions of cases a year to around a quarter of a million.
But although the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) target to achieve the elimination of leprosy was mostly achieved by the year 2000, the number of new cases annually have remained much the same in Nepal since 2009.
Latest statistics from the World Health Organisation (published August 2018) reveal there were 3,215 new cases of leprosy diagnosed and treated in Nepal in 2017.
The Leprosy Mission, however, believes this figure is just the tip of the iceberg with thousands of cases going undiagnosed. It is launching Heal Nepal to equip its flagship Anandaban Hospital, on the outskirts of the capital Kathmandu, to finally rid the country of the stigmatising and deeply disabling disease.
Head of Programmes at The Leprosy Mission, Siân Arulanantham, says now is the perfect time to launch Heal Nepal, in the wake of the devastating earthquakes of 2015 that killed 9,000 people and caused the destruction or damage of a million homes:
It has been a very strange but amazingly encouraging situation to witness.
Leprosy is so very misunderstood and stigmatised in Nepal with many people hiding the early signs of the disease for fear of being cast out of their families, jobs and communities because of ancient beliefs that leprosy is a curse. This is tragic as they then go on to develop life-long disabilities.
Before the earthquake Anandaban Hospital was a hospital nestled away in the Himalayas that leprosy patients heard about through the grapevine.
But the earthquake saw the Leprosy Mission staff based at Anandaban Hospital reach out and provide medical care, emergency shelter and food packages to more than 18,000 earthquake victims.
It was a game changer. Suddenly this hospital hidden away in the mountains became a beacon of light opening its doors to everyone.
Leprosy patients were giving up their beds to trauma patients, sometimes from the very same communities that had banished them when they heard they had leprosy.
Suddenly some of the sting was taken out of leprosy which gives us an amazing opportunity through our outreach teams to find and cure more people hidden away with the disease, hopefully before they develop disabilities.
Professor Diana Lockwood, Professor of Tropical Medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, treats new cases of leprosy in the UK – around a dozen a year, all originating from overseas:
Stigma and ignorance about leprosy are still major hurdles in stopping new patients seeking treatment.
This project will help break down barriers and encourage new patients to seek treatment. Getting patients to be diagnosed early before they develop disabilities is vital especially in Nepal.
Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt MP, said:
Heal Nepal will not only improve the health and dignity of thousands of people living with leprosy, it will also mean that female community volunteers receive medical training to diagnose and manage the illness in some of the country’s most remote areas.
Every time the British public reach into their pockets and donate to a UK Aid Match charity, the Government matches their contributions pound for pound. This appeal is directly changing the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
For more information about Heal Nepal and leprosy go to www.leprosymission.org.uk
Picture: The Leprosy Mission