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Study finds link between high leprosy cases and low Covid vaccination rates  

16 July 2021

SFLG

A map showing the proportions of people in different countries who have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine

A map showing the proportions of people in different countries who have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine

COUNTRIES with the most leprosy cases also have the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rates, although the virus is rife in these areas, new data from the St Francis Leprosy Guild (SFLG) suggest.

Its latest analysis, Our World in Data, published late last month, shows that the 23 countries where leprosy is endemic — and, according to the World Health Organization, 95.9 per cent of people detected with leprosy are found — have the lowest rates of Covid-19 vaccination.

“In our 125-year history, I don’t think we’ve known more challenging times,” the chief executive officer of SFLG, Clare McIntosh, said. “People affected by leprosy are the most marginalised and impoverished group in the world. They often live in remote and isolated locations, and have no means to travel to a clinic.”

The charity supports 40 leprosy-related centres and projects in 15 countries, including India, where 63 per cent of people in rural areas and 40 per cent in small towns have no idea how to register for vaccination.

In a letter to the SFLG last month, the director of the Dhanjury Leprosy Centre, in India, Livio Prete, wrote: “We are approaching a new phase of Covid-19 here in Bangladesh. The number of infections and death is increasing day by day. . . The percentage of people who received the vaccine is very tiny. I think it will take years to cover with the vaccine all the people.”

None the less, care of leprosy patients remained a priority, he said, but more international funding was needed. “During the rainy season, the number of patients is increasing searching for treatment, check-ups, and new cases.”

The SFLG trustees have recently agreed to distribute £60,000 in grants in its centres to meet the rising costs of bandages, food, and medication. Ms McIntosh continued: “My heart breaks at the thought of what is happening to this vulnerable group of people who need our support now. . . I am increasingly concerned that many leprosy programmes will have fallen behind, or ceased entirely, during the pandemic, especially active-case finding.”

Our World in Data is based on a recent report from the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene: An assessment of the reported impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on leprosy services using an online survey of practitioners in leprosy referral centres. It found that active case-finding projects had been reduced by 77 per cent during the pandemic, and predicted an increased burden of leprosy disability in future years as a result. Sixteen of the 20 leprosy diagnostic services surveyed had also been reduced, and one had closed.

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