Lovely (pseudo name) was 18-year-old pregnant woman, when her day labourer husband discovered a reddish patch on her skin. He heard from people that she had leprosy, the disease which has unacceptable misconception, superstitions and stigma among the ignorant people. After enduring severe humiliation and abuse by her husband Lovely was forced to leave her husband's house forever, as the disease was considered the consequence of a serious sin committed by her. She took a shelter at her poor mother's house situated in another district. After divorcing Lovely, her husband got married again. The sad story of Lovely is one instance of innumerable others like this and it portrays how women like her suffer the most due to lack of awareness among the people.
Different research findings show that every day, thousands of women with leprosy in different countries face discrimination and domestic violence. They are mistreated, and abandoned by their husbands. The shame and stigma they feel cause them to hide themselves away. People experience discrimination and social exclusion simply because they or someone in their family have the disease. The stigma often remains with the persons for long, even after they have been cured. Discrimination can lead to isolation, depression and even suicide. Stigma and prejudice play a large part in discouraging children, women and men from seeking treatment.
The more the women hide away, the worse the disease progresses. Leaving a woman untreated, can lead a chance to contaminate leprosy if she comes to infectious stage. This year's World Leprosy Day theme also highlights that we need to stop child disability due to leprosy. In that sense, mothers/women coming to early treatment can help achieve this goal. Considering the issues, building awareness among all the people is a must to make Bangladesh, and other countries free of leprosy. Coordinated efforts from the government and other stakeholders, including print, electronic and social media, can certainly make this possible. We need to train more female and male Community Health Service Providers (CHCP, under Community Clinic) and Union Level health staff and community volunteers (e.g. village doctor) urgently to reach the most number of vulnerable women and poor people.
Leprosy is a chronic disease that affects the nerves and the skin. If not treated, patients can become blind. It is always caused by bacteria called Myobacterium lepre. Scientist Hansen discovered the bacteria, and people often call it Hansen disease after his name. The bacteria multiply slowly. The incubation period is about five years, but it can stretch up to 20 years. Leprosy is entirely curable through a course of multi-drug treatment (MDT) for six months or one year.
Although leprosy is curable, there are still millions of people globally living with this disease. And many of them are discriminated by their community and state due to stigma and lack of knowledge. 213,899 people were diagnosed with leprosy in 2014, and it is estimated that millions more are still remaining undiagnosed.
In Bangladesh, National leprosy services were established in 1965 through three government hospitals. Several NGOs started providing services to leprosy affected people in different time period in different places in Bangladesh. National leprosy services were strengthened, bringing all the providers together since 1985. Now the services are available at free of charge in all upazila health complexes, district sadar hospitals and NGO clinics. Leprosy patients must be motivated to take this treatment and services.
Significant numbers of new leprosy cases are detected each year. Leprosy Mission International-Bangladesh informed that Bangladesh reports more than 3,000 new cases annually and the number during 2014 was 3,622. New cases with visible deformity are an indicator of delayed detection and the proportion of new cases with visible deformity globally 6.6 per cent. Eleven per cent of new cases reported in Bangladesh during 2014 had visible deformity.
Therefore considering the gravity of the present scenario, the government must be proactive in finding new cases, increasing community awareness and keeping enough budget
provision for National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP).
Parvez Babul is a journalist.
Email: [email protected]