one person every two minutes is diagnosed with leprosy.
Leprosy is a mildly infectious disease, caused by tiny bacteria (Micro-bacterium leprae). It’s one of the most complicated diseases known to man and can lie dormant and undetected in your body for up to 20 years. We still don’t know how it is spread, but thankfully it is easily cured with a mixture of antibiotics.Weakened immune systems due to poor sanitation, malnutrition and over-crowded living conditions mean that leprosy goes hand-in-hand with poverty. Perhaps that is why over 58% of news cases of leprosy occur in India.Leprosy attacks small nerves on the skin’s surface and the first signs of this are discoloured patches. Areas affected by the disease lose feeling. Imagine cooking over an open fire and not noticing a pot burning your hand. Or working in the field, walking over stones which cut in to your feet, but you feel no pain? Without treatment, leprosy damages the large nerves in the elbow, wrist, knee and ankle. This causes loss of feeling in hands and feet and muscle paralysis, which results in fingers bending in to the palm like a ‘claw’ and difficulty in moving the ankle and toes upwards.Everyday activities become extremely dangerous. Burns and cuts ulcerate, and often become infected. This can result in the shortening of fingers and toes, leading to amputation in many cases.If that wasn’t bad enough, leprosy can also attack the facial nerves that tell eyelid muscles to blink.If you can’t blink, you can’t get dirt out of your eyes and this can cause blindness.
What does this actually mean? If you can’t for example, grip a tool, hold a hot cooking pot, push a rickshaw, or use your fingers to plant vegetables, you can’t work. No work, no food. It’s that simple. The whole family suffers and poverty just gets worse and worse. So why don’t people with leprosy just take the antibiotics?In the UK when we have symptoms we can’t explain we usually visit our doctor for help – it’s unlikely that fear of ostracism by our family and friends would keep us suffering in silence. But that is exactly what happens in India.For many reasons, cultural and religious, leprosy is one of the most feared diseases in India. It is believed that leprosy is a curse or punishment for misdeeds in a former life. Having leprosy can mean that you are chased out of your home (it’s still grounds for divorce in India!), away from your family and community. The whole family has a black mark placed upon it. Discrimination means that no-one will talk to you, you can’t find work, and children are turned away from school and face an unmarried future – a further stigma.How would you feel if you thought you might lose your loved ones, and cause your family pain? It’s no wonder that people hide the symptoms of leprosy for as long as they can.Of course, no treatment means almost certain disability. The good news is that leprosy can be cured at any stage and surgery can reverse hand and foot problems. However blindness cannot be reversed, and once feeling is lost, it can never return. This means life-long risk of injury.