Signs indicate leprosy is making a comeback
It has been 13 years since the World Health Organization declared Bangladesh leprosy-free and the country has indeed made great strides in curbing it. Yet there are still many people who suffer from the disease, especially in remote rural areas, and recent statistics suggest that it may be on the way back. The social stigma of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, can be as painful as the symptoms. Sufferers are ostracized and shunned, even by their own families. They are often denied access to public places such as markets and hotels. Employment opportunities are virtually non-existent and, more often than not, they have to beg in the streets for a living. “People don’t consider us human beings,” said Suren Hembrom, a tribal Santal from Rajshahi district. “We are cursed and nobody cares for us.” Hembrom is forced to live outside his village as his family members refuse to let him live with them. Maria Biswas, a tribal Paharia woman, was also moved out of her family home when she was diagnosed with the disease. “I almost lost the desire to live,” she said. “My two sons and two daughters wanted nothing to do with me. Even my brother chased me out of the house.” Fortunately, she has since found refuge at a local Catholic convent. In the minds of many Bengalis, leprosy is strongly linked to tribal people. One man, who did not want to be named when he spoke to ucanews.com, said he holds “dirty and cursed tribals” responsible for his disease, as he used to travel around their areas. “I didn’t know these tribals were infectious and now it has taken its toll on me,” he said. But leprosy expert Dr. Muhammad Hasan Ali, of the Tuberculosis and Leprosy Institute, emphasized that the illness is not infectious. “People in villages are superstitious and ignorant. They consider leprosy a curse but it isn’t,” he said. “Good treatment can completely cure a leper within one year. “Tribal people might get leprosy from living in dirty, unhealthy and congested places but that doesn’t mean they should be called cursed.” It was Christian missioners who made the first efforts to curb leprosy in the 1950s. Official initiatives to fight the disease began in 1965 after an epidemic in several rural districts. Voluntary groups joined the campaign and there are now a total of 625 leprosy treatment facilities across the country. Their widespread accessibility and the new multi-drug therapies prescribed by WHO have helped reduce the disease dramatically. The ratio of leprosy patients per 10,000 people, which stood at 13.6 in 1991, is now just 0.01. However, statistics from the Leprosy Mission International show 3,800 new cases were recorded last year. This indicates that the disease is making an unwelcome return to rural areas and urban slums. Related reports Patients with leprosy get a second chance
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