As the world marks the World Leprosy Day, Nigerians have been urged to stop discrimination against people living with the disease.
Though the number of leprosy cases has steadily declined worldwide, Nigeria reported 522 new cases last year. Five per cent of these were children and 13 per cent were already with disability.
This figure is a quarter of what was reported in 2017. That year, 2,442 new cases were notified by the National Tuberculosis (TB) and Leprosy Control Programme (NTBLCP). Among these, 184 (7.5 per cent) were children and 361 (15 per cent) had acquired irreversible disabilities due to late presentation of the cases to health care facilities.
Unfortunately, the victims usually have hives on their bodies with severe deformities on their limbs, fingers chopped off, damaged nervous systems and the thin tissue lining of their noses.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 200,000 cases are reported yearly with India accounting for more than half.
The last Sunday of January of every year is set aside as the World Leprosy Day to raise awareness about the disease, celebrate the people affected and mobilise support for leprosy control.
This years’ commemoration marks the 66th and is themed “Ending Discrimination, stigma and Prejudices.
The Minister of State for Health, Osagie Ehanire, in his speech made available to journalists to mark the day, said it provides an opportunity for the world to focus on this ancient disease that has caused so much misery to humans.
Mr Ehanire said stigma and discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their families remain a major challenge in Nigeria.
He said there are many mistaken beliefs about the disease. For example; people think that it is highly contagious or hereditary or that the disease is divine punishment.
“All these misconceptions negatively affects persons with leprosy, even after they are fully cured. Leprosy, therefore, requires a concerted response from all stakeholders”.
“I would like to recognise all persons affected by leprosy, and let you know the government is with you; and to individuals, agencies and organisations actively working together for a Leprosy free Nigeria, I tell you are doing God’s work,” he said.
Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by a slowly multiplying germ, a bacillus called Mycobacterium leprae, whose incubation period is up to 5 years.
The symptoms of the disease can take as long as 20 years to appear and it mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes. Leprosy is transmitted through droplets from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contact with untreated patients.
Untreated leprosy cases eventually cause disabilities which lead to discrimination and stigma.
The good news is that Leprosy is now curable with multidrug therapy (MDT) and the treatment is free. Unfortunately, most patients are not aware of this, leading to late presentation of the disease in the hospitals.
People with the disease are often discriminated against, making them resort to begging even after the disease is cured, because most people do not want to do anything with them. This has made it difficult for most of them to reintegrate into society.
Though the government has been funding leprosy control through NTBLCP, there has been more focus on TB, making one of the tropical neglected diseases to take back seat. The campaign against the disease has majorly been championed by foreign donors.
Mr Ehanire said the continued presence of undetected leprosy cases in the country is of serious concern to the government, especially when it involves children.
This is because it indicates ongoing transmission within communities just as permanent disability indicates that cases existed unreported in communities for years…
“Early detection of the disease and complete treatment with MDT remain the fundamental principles of leprosy control.
In addition, newly introduced interventions, like the use of single dose rifampicin (SDR) as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for contacts with leprosy patients, are welcome developments, as we gear up our efforts toward defeating leprosy in the near future, he said.