ALTHOUGH the government of Nepal reached the elimination target for leprosy in 2009 — classified as less than one person per ten thousand of the population — the number of new cases has failed to decline since then, because of scarce resources to fight the disease.
The latest statistics from the World Health Organization shows there were 3215 new cases of leprosy diagnosed and treated in Nepal in 2017. The Leprosy Mission believes that the real figures could be much higher, because stigma about the disease still forces sufferers to keep themselves hidden.
Globally, the eradication-target was reached in 2000, after new multi-antibiotic treatment was discovered in 1982, but the disease continues to exist in many countries, the Mission says.
Its head of programmes, Siân Arulanantham, said: “Leprosy is so very misunderstood and stigmatised in Nepal, with many people hiding the early signs of the disease for fear of being cast out of their families, jobs, and communities because of ancient beliefs that leprosy is a curse. This is tragic as they then go on to develop lifelong disabilities.”
She said that one of the unexpected effects of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which killed 9000 people (News, 24 April 2015), was that staff at the Leprosy Mission hospital provided care for earthquake victims, breaking down some of the barriers caused by stigma and fear of the disease.
She said: “The earthquake saw the Leprosy Mission staff based at Anandaban Hospital reach out and provide medical care, emergency shelter, and food packages to more than 18,000 earthquake victims.
“It was a game-changer. Suddenly, this hospital hidden away in the mountains became a beacon of light, opening its doors to everyone.
“Leprosy patients were giving up their beds to trauma patients, sometimes from the very same communities that had banished them when they heard they had leprosy.
“It was amazing to see, and, despite the same number of staff, who work tirelessly around the clock, patient numbers have doubled to 40,000 a year since; no one is turned away.
“Suddenly, some of the sting was taken out of leprosy, which gives us an amazing opportunity through our outreach teams to find and cure more people hidden away with the disease, hopefully before they develop disabilities.”
An aerial picture of Anandaban Hospital in Nepal
The Leprosy Mission has launched a Heal Nepal campaign, which is being supported by the UK Government. Every £1 raised by the campaign until 27 April will be matched by the Government.
The money will fund outreach teams to find and treat those with leprosy in remote areas of Nepal, and bring those who need surgery to the hospital.
Professor Diana Lockwood, Professor of Tropical Medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, treats about a dozen cases of leprosy a year in the UK, all of which originate from overseas.
She said: “Stigma and ignorance about leprosy are still major hurdles in stopping new patients seeking treatment. This project will help break down barriers and encourage new patients to seek treatment. Getting patients to be diagnosed early before they develop disabilities is vital especially in Nepal.”
The Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, said: “Heal Nepal will not only improve the health and dignity of thousands of people living with leprosy: it will also mean that female community-volunteers receive medical training to diagnose and manage the illness in some of the country’s most remote areas.
“Every time the British public reach into their pockets and donate to a UK Aid Match charity, the Government matches their contributions pound for pound. This appeal is directly changing the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”