SWITZERLAND — The World Health Organization has urged countries, especially those in the South-East Asia Region, to urgently address gaps in leprosy services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a press release, the WHO called on nations to accelerate efforts towards zero leprosy infection and disease, zero leprosy disability, and zero leprosy stigma—the vision of the WHO Global Leprosy Strategy 2021-2030.

The World Health Organization today called on countries in the South-East Asia Region and globally to urgently address gaps in leprosy services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and to accelerate efforts towards zero leprosy infection and disease,” WHO said in a press release.

Leprosy is 100 percent curable when detected early, yet today in addition to COVID-19-related challenges, stigma and discrimination, both institutionalized and informal, continue to impede prompt diagnosis and treatment and facilitate onward spread, said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO South-East Asia.

This has to change,” she said on the eve of World Leprosy day.

In 2021, 140,000 new leprosy cases were reported, with the 23 global priority countries accounting for 95% of new cases. Six percent of those were diagnosed with visible deformities or grade-2 disabilities (G2D).

She stated that over 6% of new cases were children under the age of 15, with 368 being diagnosed with grade-2 disabilities.

Despite a 10% increase in new cases between 2020 and 2021, reported cases were 30% lower in 2021 than in 2019.

This is not due to a decrease in transmission, but cases remaining undetected due to COVID-19-related disruptions.

Countries must continue to urgently restore leprosy services, with a focus on expanding single dose rifampicin chemoprophylaxis, intensifying active case finding, and ensuring prompt diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy,” said Dr Khetrapal Singh. 

Rescind discriminatory laws

The WHO has urged all countries to immediately and unequivocally revoke discriminatory laws and implement United Nations principles and guidelines for the elimination of discrimination against people affected by leprosy and their families.

At least 115 discriminatory laws have been reported to be in place in seven nations, according to the press release.

The Regional Director stressed on focusing attention on vulnerable populations, including women, children, immigrants, refugees, the elderly, the homeless, residents of deprived leprosy ‘colonies’ and those living in geographically inaccessible areas to end suffering and achieve zero leprosy.

Over the past decade, strong progress was achieved in several key areas of leprosy prevention, treatment, and control globally, with new child case detection reduced by 27% between 2010 and 2019.

Visible deformities at time of diagnosis reduced by 23% between 2014 and 2019 and new child case detection rate reduced to 7.6 per million children as opposed to 9.8 in 2014.

With up to 50% of persons affected by leprosy facing psychiatric morbidities such as depression, anxiety disorders and suicide attempts, countries should also increase access for persons affected by leprosy and their families to mental health care, a key feature of the Global Leprosy Strategy, along with scaling up diagnosis and treatment.

The regional director said that people affected by leprosy must be empowered and involved in decision-making, including in service design and delivery. She stated that “Act Now. End Leprosy” is this year’s theme for World Leprosy Day.

Persons affected by leprosy must be engaged, empowered and involved in all aspects of decision-making, including in service design and delivery, and in social and economic activities,” Dr Poonam Kheterpal Singh said.

Leprosy has afflicted humanity for millennia; however, we can be the generation that ends the transmission of leprosy, end suffering, ensuring we leave no one behind,” she concluded.

For all the latest healthcare industry news from Africa and the World, subscribe to our NEWSLETTER, and YouTube Channel, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, and like us on Facebook.