Since the year 1954 the last Sunday of the month of January is globally observed as the Leprosy Day. This observance is associated with the French writer and philanthropist Raoul Fullereau , who dedicated years of his life in raising fund for the care of the people with leprosy through programmes for raising awareness about leprosy.
Leprosy harms people in multiple ways: physically, mentally, and socially and spiritually. Unless right and timely treatment is received by the affected people, leprosy can and does devastate life. The word ‘Leprosy’ refers not only a disease but this very term was used until recently and still it continues to do so to describe the person with the same: people refer to the person suffering from this is called ‘leper’, which is rather a derogatory way of describing a human person. If three people, one with HIV positive, one with TB and the third one with leprosy are found sitting somewhere almost everyone will avoid sitting close to the third one! Leprosy is such a stigmatising and alienating problem right from the beginning of human history. Anyone having seen the many-times Oscar winning Film Ben Hur would clearly know this. Religious scriptures have stories of rulers and monarchs having lost their thrones and positions because of leprosy. Still this stigma continues with many, if not with all.
Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s’ disease since the bacteria causing this was first identified by the Norwegian researcher, Armauer Hansen) needs care for the whole person of the people affected by it. A holistic transformation of the person affected by leprosy is required including healthcare, prevention of disability, rehabilitation, education, social awareness raising, advocacy for social change aiming at dignity, inclusion and human rights. Estimates reveal that one person in the world is affected by this disease in a couple of minutes.
Leprosy is a mild infectious disease caused by a bacillus called Mycobacterium Leprae. Around 99% people have natural immunity against leprosy. Around 90% of the population affected by leprosy in the world inhabits the developing countries. In Bangladesh around 3000-4000 new cases have been detected with leprosy annually in the recent past years. Leprosy is a multi-factoral health hazard meaning that it requires a germ, an environment and a host. This cluster-form makes the breeding ground. Research has been going on by leprologists to identify the root cause of leprosy. However, poverty, malnutrition and unhygienic condition may lie behind the genesis of the bacterium. There is good deal of holistic activities going on in different parts of the Bangladesh where leprosy is more prevalent than others. Some of those districts are Nilphamari, Rangpur, Kurigram, Sylhet, Dhaka, Hill districts, Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, etc.
The Leprosy Mission International Bangladesh the largest NGO working with the leprosy affected people in the country provides cooperation, technical support and advice in the field of Leprosy Control, Health Education, Treatment and Rehabilitation to other fraternal organisations and government agencies.
Due to restriction imposed by the NGO bureau on overseas financial support the needed work in the field of care for leprosy affected people is being hampered. So it will help the leprosy care activities to have any moratorium lifted. Continued social awareness campaign needs to be carried out for the eradication of leprosy from Bangladesh. Early detection and timely medical intervention is of utmost importance for prevention disability due to this disease. Leprosy is no more to be treated as a curse, it is a curable diseases caused by a bacterium. There is free and easily available scientific and effective multi-drug treatment for it. MDT or multi-drug treatment is available in many sub-district health care centres, if not at all centres. A process is under way for the integration of leprosy treatment at government hospitals. MBBS course curriculum has more classes on leprosy than it used to be before.
The stigmatising obsolete law made in 1898 called the Leper’s Act 1898, which was made to alienate any person having leprosy, was repealed by Bangladesh Parliament in 2011. Grateful thanks to several political leaders, especially Janab Saber Hossain Chowdhury, and also Advocate Abdul Matin Khasru, Mr. Asaduzaman Noor and many others for their kind support that they had provided in the process involved. In those days it was necessary to have such legislation because modern scientific treatment of this disease was not known. But since the eighties of the last century scientific treatment is available. WHO prescribed MDT is freely available through the generous contribution of the Nippon Foundation for making this cocktail of Dapson, Rifampicin and Clofazimine. The said ancient law has been repealed. What is needed is to implement the spirit with which that repeal was done. Mainstreaming the leprosy affected people has always been on our agenda. I was doing advocacy work for the protection and promotion of the human rights of the people suffering from leprosy as I served The Leprosy Mission International Bangladesh during 2002 till 2011. In order that leprosy is eliminated from the country social awareness and education about leprosy and its treatment, integration of treatment at general hospitals and health care centres, and also good amount of leprosy education needs to be provided to the medical students. I have experience that there have been close cooperation among organisations, both government and non-government, in our country. Our earnest hope is that a day will come before too distant a time when leprosy will not only be eliminated but also eradicated from the soil of Bangladesh. With the march of time Bangladesh is proceeding towards more and more development. And in this process this hope will also be materialised because leprosy is a development issue.
The writer is a Christian theology teacher and social worker.