NIGERIA – The World Health Organization (WHO) has called governments’ attention to the plight of people living with leprosy and the dangers of ignoring screening and treatment of the disease, especially during a pandemic, as it can result in irreversible physical impairment.

The infectious disease leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is curable and caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae.

According to experts, the disease is difficult to contract and that most people will never develop it even if they are exposed to leprosy bacilli.

It has a 5-year incubation period, and symptoms can appear 20 years later. It primarily affects the skin and peripheral nerves.

On World Leprosy Day, the apex health institution critically examined the vulnerability of people infected with leprosy in a pandemic, saying many of them were severely harmed by the lockdown, which prevented them from accessing treatment and care, deprived them of income-generating opportunities, and exacerbated the deprivation their marginalized communities already faced.

Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, called on governments and healthcare practitioners around the world to rally support for people with the condition in order to prevent unnecessary disruption in people’s lives in a statement.

Citing the World Health Organization’s report on the condition, which was published in September 2021, he stated that there was only a 37% decrease in new cases from the previous year, implying a disruption in healthcare services to leprosy patients as a result of COVID-19.

According to him: “This is evidence that, in many countries, measures against leprosy, including case detection and treatment, have been disrupted by the pandemic. Delays in detecting and treating cases can lead to irreversible physical impairment, so it is essential that these services continue. That is why I have been seeking the support of government officials and health professionals for the “Don’t forget leprosy” campaign.”

Nigerian scientists have expressed similar concerns about the disease’s management in the country, claiming that despite a declining prevalence trend, patients are finding it difficult to access treatment and care due to a lack of adequate provision and a limited number of practitioners to attend to them.

Udo et al. discovered that, “With an annual new case detection of 4000 people, a Grade 2 disability rate of 12%, and a nearly 10% child ratio among new cases, leprosy remains a disease of public health importance in Nigeria.”

Still on the Nigerian situation, the National Co-ordinator, Voice of Humanitarian Aid Foundation (VOHAF), Franca Emekobun, recently mentioned barriers to care for people living with the disease in a press conference.

Misconceptions about the disease being highly contagious, taboo, hereditary, and heaven’s punishment, she said, are the greatest challenge for people living with the disease, adding that prevention and treatment through early detention prevents deformity, which eventually stops discrimination.

Miss Emekobun emphasized that poor leprosy patients were citizens who should not be denied access to good health care, education, and a safe environment.

In order to overcome these obstacles, Sasakawa urged leprosy patients to oppose the trend and get involved in using their experience and knowledge. It is also critical that they are social media active and speak out against discrimination.

He said: “We are the only creatures on earth that have been given the ability to reason. Let us use our reason to confront the stigma that persons affected by leprosy face, cure society of the disease of discrimination and stop repeating the mistakes of the past.

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