Leprosy endemic returns in India

Seven years after the disease was ‘eradicated’, leprosy has returned in India. The ‘poverty disease’ is redeveloping roots in India’s poor states – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and most prominently, Bihar. India is home to more than half the world’s leprosy cases.

While the number of cases this year, at 127,000, is still lower than the 170,000 cases in 2005 – when the government had claimed victory over the disfiguring disease, the number is 400 cases higher than in 2010, which is causing an alarm.

The Leprosy Mission New Zealand (LMNZ) has been working in India through its sister organisation – The Leprosy Mission India Trust, based in New Delhi. LMNZ executive director Brent Morgan recently travelled to Bihar to review the work. He shares his experience in an interview with The Global Indian magazine.

Why did you choose Bihar for your visit?

“The reason for my visit to India was to see some of the work that LMNZ funds. This time it was to Muzaffarpur Hospital, a Leprosy Mission hospital three hours from Patna in Bihar. LMNZ has been supporting the work at Muzaffarpur for more than 20 years.

The Leprosy Mission India Trust, our sister organisation based in New Delhi, has been working in Bihar for many years. The reason we work there is that it is one of the states of India that is still leprosy-endemic, that is more than one case of leprosy per 10,000 population.”

Was your experience different from what you had expected?

“Yes and no. I worked in India from 1999-2005 as an expatriate with a large multinational company; so I know the country reasonably well and regard it as my second home. What I did notice was ‘middle India’ doing much better than it was 10 years back which is great.

“Going out into the rural villages, places like Muzaffarpur, I don’t think that the lives of poor people have changed very much. This remains a challenge for India – how to improve the lives of the poor and those with leprosy.”

What do you think could be done differently to tackle leprosy in India?

“The number of new cases has increased recently. There is more knowledge and expertise on leprosy in India than anywhere else in the world, both in government and NGOs like ours; so the skills are there. Leprosy can be tackled by the government committing more funds to detecting and treating the disease early, before it becomes a problem.

“I am encouraged to hear that the Indian government are considering committing more funds to leprosy work. The other issue, which is more long term, is addressing leprosy stigma.

“People affected by leprosy are often marginalised from society. Society must realise that leprosy is another disease – preventable, curable and not highly contagious. It must change its attitude if the leprosy-affected are to ever live in the mainstream of Indian society.”

The Leprosy Mission New Zealand has projects in India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea.  If you have a special connection with any of these countries and would like to support the Mission’s work, you can contact Michael Sheppard on +64 9 631 1807 or email him at mike.sheppard@leprosymission.org.nz. There are many different ways you can get involved from awareness raising or fundraising through to helping out in the Auckland office.

India records the highest number of new leprosy cases in the world; of around 35% of new leprosy cases in India, 48,000 are women and 13,610 children newly detected with leprosy. (Source: World Health Organisation)

Leprosy cannot be transmitted by casual contact as people fear and 95% of people are immune to the disease. Dr Pankaj Maniar, consultant dermatologist and vice-chairman, Alert India, says, “People should shed their worries, not think about the stigma and societal concerns and seek medical advice on noticing the first signs of leprosy. Today, leprosy is treatable and medications too are available easily.”




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