Stigma Stymies India’s Leprosy Battle
August 27, 2014 Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly-infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Christian charity hospital The Leprosy Mission in Kolkata is among the country’s best for treating leprosy patients. When a young male patient arrives, a physiologist checks his arms for signs of nerve damage that can debilitate and deform. Elsewhere, eye doctors test another patient's vision. Stigma For many patients, the gruesome toll that the disease inflicts on their bodies is not the worst part about having leprosy. It’s how other people treat them. "People hate me because I have leprosy. When they see my festering wounds they fear that I will infect them," one patient confided. "So they cover their face and move away from me.” Social stigma against the disease in India is strong. None of the patients want to be identified by name on camera. Early drug intervention can arrest leprosy’s ruinous impact, but many newly- infected people, who worry about being ostracized, hide their condition for years until they start to become disabled. An 18-year-old patient got the infection in childhood, but only recently sought medical treatment when it started affecting his hands and feet. Once at The Leprosy Mission, patients can receive drugs to mitigate the disease’s impact, get custom-made shoes to fit disfigured feet, or even have prosthetic limbs designed. But then the time comes for patients to leave, which frequently becomes the biggest challenge, according to Dr. Helen Roberts, superintendent of The Leprosy Mission. “When the treatment gets over there is often such cases that people don’t want to take them back to their homes. That’s why the treatment becomes very difficult for us because it’s a hospital providing healthcare. But it’s not a home - we cannot keep them here forever,” she explained. Consequences Families effectively disown sons, daughters and siblings. Businesses fire infected workers. Many patients end up impoverished and ostracized in places like this leprosy colony, 130 kilometers from Kolkata. India has made great strides in treating the disease through specialized leprosy clinics. But Dr. Jerry Joshua, a surgeon at The Leprosy Mission, said the fact there is a specialized hospital for leprosy at all is a part of the problem. “There is actually no need for centers exclusively for leprosy. The treatment that is provided here should be made available to them wherever they can access such as any plastic surgery or orthopedic surgery unit. Unfortunately this is not the case where patients do not mingle with each other,” he said. Dr. Joshua added that in an ideal situation, hospitals like his should not exist, and leprosy would be treated no differently than heart disease or diabetes.