A slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae is responsible for the infection called leprosy. In this health condition, the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose get affected. While this is a curable disease, it leads to discoloration and lumps on the skin. Only the most severe cases lead to disability. The common symptoms include light-coloured or red skin patches with reduced sensation, numbness and weakness in hands and feet.
According to a study, more than 60% of global cases of leprosy today come from India. The government has been working to control leprosy since 1955 with their National Leprosy Control Programme (NLCP). Since then, several governmental and non-governmental initiatives helped the leprosy cases to decline, but with the onset of other diseases like Covid, the emphasis on leprosy control faltered. The rising cases of leprosy in India demand urgent attention as the disease is highly communicable and can affect a person’s life physically and socially.
While many believe that leprosy mainly affects physically but it also impacts the patients mentally. Deepak Kapur, Head, Rotary Club Alliance for Leprosy Control says, “Leprosy has severe ramifications on patients both physically and mentally. The disease makes the extremities of the body wither away- such as the fingers, and toes, ulcers start to develop in the soles of feet, and eyesight deteriorates. Mentally it is perhaps the most devastating disease of all. If a person gets leprosy, often they can’t even dare to look at themselves in the mirror. Most leprosy patient are ostracized and neglected by their family members and society. In fact, employment is next to impossible, so they naturally gravitate to leprosy colonies where the other patients of leprosy are living.”
He adds, “Anybody can contract leprosy- age, sex, and economic status are no bar. You could be harbouring the bacteria for three decades without the disease manifesting itself. It is a universal illness, and anyone can contract it at any time unless their immunity levels are high.”
Talking about the major social stigmas faced by the patients of leprosy, Kapur says, “Leprosy patients still face the same stigma that society has made them feel since biblical times. Ostracization, being treated as cursed, and restraints on employment are rampant.”