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Leprosy victims crippled and suffering because of fear and prejudice

There are about 200,000 cases of leprosy reported every year – with the poorest countries worst affected.

A file photo of a man with leprosy.
A file photo of a man with leprosy.
Image: Wong Maye-E/AP/Press Association Images

LEPROSY IS OFTEN associated with Bible stories, a historic disease that has no place in the modern world.

However, leprosy is still a major problem, especially for the world’s poorest countries.

The chronic infection is transmitted most effectively in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. This means that it afflicts “the poorest” and “most vulnerable” in the world, says Dr Charles Kinkpe, chief medical officer at the Hospital of the Order of Malta (HOM) in Dakar, Senegal. The facility in the capital is at the forefront of the treatment of the disease and provides free care for those who can’t afford it.

Although considerable progress has been made in the fight against leprosy, it remains devastatingly present in more than 100 countries in Africa, America, Asia and the Pacific.

This weekend marks World Leprosy Day (held over 72 hours) which aims to raise awareness of the disease. Organisers hope to put out the message that leprosy, of which there were about 200,000 new cases in 2012, can be eradicated completely.

Organisations dealing with leprosy combat prejudice through education, hammering home the message that leprosy is not hereditary, nor a sign of a divine curse.

They point out that 95 per cent of humans are actually naturally immune to what campaigners call the world’s “least contagious communicable disease”.

Losing limbs

Multi-drug therapy (MDT), available free of charge through the World Health Organisation since the 1980s, consists of three antibiotics which together can cure patients in a few months.

But often those afflicted with leprosy do not know how to spot the signs early on and the disease takes an insidious hold, attacking nerve endings, destroying the ability to feel pain and injury.

“They burn themselves holding a hot pan or injure their feet walking on glass, for example, and do not realise,” Kinkpe told AFP.

Unable to sense these injuries, patients are susceptible to sores and infections which can eventually lead to the loss of fingers, hands, toes and feet, blindness and facial disfigurement.

“They often wait until the last minute to be seen,” laments the orthopaedic surgeon. Yet the bacterial illness can be easily cured before it causes serious damage.

“People with leprosy are isolated, kept remote – people don’t touch them. People say they are cursed,” says Diemg Mas, a 33-year-old teacher who has been receiving treatment for nearly two years.

Women sometimes hide the illness for fear of being rejected by their husbands.

Treated in 1976 and cured permanently, 60-year-old Moustapha Seck stayed at HOM and now manufactures orthopaedic shoes for those crippled by leprosy.

“When they put them on, first they walk, then they dance with joy,” he says proudly.

image

Image: Wong Maye-E/AP/Press Association Images

Another patient in the Senegal hospital is Modou Gaye. His right leg has been amputated below the knee.

Afflicted by recurrent yet mysterious sores, he had done the rounds of traditional practitioners and physicians who prescribed him various plants and potions but were unable to tell him he had leprosy.

“I didn’t know anything about the disease,” the 32-year-old street peddler from central Senegal tells AFP in his native language, Wolof.

Gaye’s story typifies the experience of many patients who one day notice an innocuous, painless blemish on the skin, and later discover they have leprosy, a condition which is easy to combat yet which continues to cripple and exclude millions worldwide.

But it was too late to save his right leg, the bone already too badly damaged.

In Ireland

There were two cases of leprosy reported in Ireland last year. In June 2013, the HSE confirmed the first known case for several decades. The sufferer was a man in his 30s, originally from South America. He did not contract the disease in the country but it was a recurrence of the condition he had in the past.

The HSE said the man had been treated in hospital in Dublin, and that there was no cause for public concern, as the condition is not highly contagious.

The bacterium that causes the condition multiplies so slowly that the first symptoms can often only appear around five years – and sometimes up to 20 years – after a person first comes into contact with it.

The second case, confirmed just a couple of months later, occurred in the north-east of the country. Again, it was a male foreign national who had contracted the infection abroad.

Additional reporting by Sinéad O’Carroll

Related: Second case of leprosy reported in Ireland

More: Ireland records first known case of leprosy in decades

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