By Stella Paul
Hyderabad, Dec 3 2021 (IPS) – As 2021 nears its end, public health systems worldwide remain severely strained by COVID 19, which is showing no sign of ending. But even as countries battle to control the deadly pandemic, they must also maintain the progress made against other diseases, including leprosy, global leprosy experts and advocates have urged.
On Thursday, at a webinar organized by the Sasakawa Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) Initiative, a strategic alliance that links the WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, Sasakawa Health Foundation, and The Nippon Foundation for achieving a leprosy-free world, over 150 members of several leprosy-affected people’s organizations expressed their concerns about leprosy resurgence. In Comoros, in East Africa, hundreds of new cases had been detected in the smaller islands, and many of the affected are children.
“We have carried out case-finding mini-campaigns in targeted areas of Anjouan and Mohéli (islands in Comoros) with the help of community health workers and have detected new cases including in children aged 15 and above,” said Dr. Aboubacar Mzembaba, National Programme Manager, Leprosy & Tuberculosis in the Ministry of Health, Comoros.
Data shared by Mzembaba shows that in 2020, there were 217 new cases, which increased to 239 in 2021. He said about 33 percent of children are affected by leprosy, and the government aims to bring this down to 10%.
The growing number of cases among children was “a concern,” said Pemmaraju V Rao, Acting Team Leader, Global Leprosy Programme, WHO.
Rao, who also facilitated the webinar, said that since cases continued to be unreported in many regions of the world, it was essential to continue with the current strategies of detecting and managing leprosy cases, including door-to-door visits, strengthening local health facilities, regular training, and supervision of health workers.
Tesfaye Tadesse, the Managing Director of Ethiopian National Association of Persons Affected by Leprosy (ENAPAL), said the organization has been at the forefront of Ethiopia’s battle for leprosy eradication. It was also concerned with protecting the dignity and rights of leprosy-effected people.
At the webinar, Tesfaye highlighted how COVID undermined leprosy in Ethiopia even though new cases have continued to grow. Also, fear of social exclusion drove people to seek alternative cures, like faith-healing.
“This year, we have detected 21 new cases, many of them in the holy water areas of the Amhara region. People are so scared of social stigma, instead of seeking medical treatment, they are going to collect holy water for their cure,” said Tadesse.
As stigma and discrimination remain a challenge across countries and cultures, people affected by leprosy have emerged as a tight-knit community. They take the opportunity to come together at any community event and share each other’s struggles and wins. In Thursday’s webinar, the third of a series of virtual seminars in the ‘Don’t Forget Leprosy’ campaign, participants and speakers could be seen encouraging each other and sharing their thoughts freely.
When Kofi Nyarko – a leprosy-affected person from Ghana, stressed the importance of early detection and appropriate treatment without stigma for preventing disabilities in leprosy, participants from other countries were quick to express their support and cheer him on.
Yohei Sasakawa – WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Chairman of The Nippon Foundation responds to a question from IPS News correspondent at a webinar organized by the Sasakawa Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) Initiative. Credit: Stella Paul
However, to win their fight in a post-pandemic era, the leprosy-affected community would need more external support as well, said Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Chairman of The Nippon Foundation.
According to Sasakawa, whose foundation has been instrumental in providing financial, technical, and moral support to leprosy-affected organizations worldwide, achieving a zero-leprosy world cannot be accomplished through a technocratic approach alone. A rights-based, human-centered approach that stresses full dignity and equality for the leprosy-affected community is crucial to achieving the goal.
For that, support of new allies would be vital – and Sasakawa advised the participants to seek more partners for their campaigns, including youth and media.
“The young generation is not aware of the struggle of the leprosy-affected people, especially of the older generation. We should therefore find ways to engage with them, make them aware,” Sasakawa told IPS.
“Designing educational programs is a good way to do this. Taking a human-rights approach, sharing your personal stories with the youth can help. It is also important to engage with media who can help highlight the causes.”
All the speakers and participants at the webinar agreed that the best way to achieve the aims of the “towards zero-leprosy” drive is to strengthen their campaign by increasing its global visibility.
Observation of the World Leprosy Day on January 30 presented an opportunity toward that and, the participants agreed to utilize it with renewed passion and a broader outreach plan.
“Engage with the media, utilize the radio networks in your country. COVID is there, but we must continue with our campaign,” Sasakawa advised.