Leprosy beyond tales and legends

From biblical times to the Middle Ages to present day – leprosy lives.

Ten years ago, the World Health Organization called to eliminate leprosy within a decade. Last year, the disease continued to produce half a million new cases. Since 1995 and until 2010, the WHO will provide free treatment, but it’s worth considering how effective this free treatment is when the many suffering from leprosy continue to hide their condition, often fearing discrimination and isolation.

Given the shame surrounding the illness, it’s difficult to say how many live with the disease without ever seeking help. It wasn’t long ago that people thought it was normal to quarantine people to leper colonies. It is now thought that a vast majority of people are immune to the bacteria and exposure to infected people would not necessarily result in transfer of the disease. Even with this knowledge, there is a stigma around acquiring and spreading leprosy. Despite the closure of most colonies in the 1960s, some persist.

There are parts of the world where people fear leprosy more than cancer or other life-threatening diseases, and this fear prevents treatment. It’s crucial for people to treat themselves immediately because the cure eliminates the disease, but the permanent disfigurement that occurs prior to treatment cannot be reversed. The longer a person prolongs medical attention, the more damaging the illness becomes.

The WHO and other health organizations must think in broader terms of health care because a treatment is more than providing medicinal healing. Health care providers must take into account cultural and societal factors that play a role in preventing treatment. It doesn’t make sense to have a goal but to not measure and target the factors that prevent successful treatment. Working with community representatives to determine proper care is a crucial element in ending this illness.

Health care is not charity – it’s a human right, and it cannot be something that simply means giving money without considering long-term solutions. Psychological and societal factors play a greater role than many assume. In a world where pandemics such as AIDS are prevalent, it is not enough to argue that societal stigmas and shame prevent treatment from saving lives.