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Leprosy in India: Rays of Hope

by Mark Guidera

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The people of India do not take good health for granted. In their country, diseases that are under control elsewhere in the world still strike with epidemic force. Cholera, malaria, hepatitis and encephalitis can spread wildly if left unchecked, and they are dreaded as much as flood or famine. Often it takes more than serum to fight them; people must be helped to overcome fears and misunderstanding about cause and cure.

One disease that could be conquered still rages, partly because it is feared and misunderstood more than any other. It is Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy.

Leprosy is caused by a micro-organism which mainly attacks the skin and nerves. It is rarely fatal, and with treatment it can be cured. The widespread belief that leprosy is contagious is true only for one rare strain of the disease. For the most part it is not contagious.

To fight leprosy in India is to do battle not only against the disease itself, but against a fortress of cultural and religious beliefs. According to the Hindu religion, which three-fourths of India’s 650 million people profess, all beings are continuously reincarnated after death. To the devout Hindu, a person’s situation in life is a direct result of his deeds in a past life. Thus the Hindu believes that leprosy is not just a disease, but a judgment of the gods. He sees it as evidence that the victim was guilty of selfish behavior – perhaps even crime – in his previous existence. Persons afflicted with the disease are either pitied or despised.

The victim of leprosy therefore loses more than the sense of feeling in a hand or foot; he loses his sense of self-respect. In its place there comes a demoralizing feeling of uselessness. Many of the afflicted hide themselves away, refusing to seek medical advice or treatment. The psychological anguish they suffer far outweighs their physical pain.

Often it is not just the victim himself who loses esteem in the community. The members of his family may be shunned as well, even if all of them are completely healthy. They may be prevented from socializing, marrying, or finding steady work. For this reason alone, the victim of leprosy may choose to remain hidden, enduring the pain and disfigurement of the disease so that his family will not be ostracized.

The afflicted person who lives in isolation is dependent upon his family for support. If he has no family, there is only one line of work open to him: begging. The more disfigured and destitute a beggar appears, the greater are his chances for earning a small income in the crowded markets and train stations.

Today, the victims of leprosy need no longer resign themselves to the grim choice of either hiding or begging while disease ravages their bodies. Prospects for treatment and recovery are improving rapidly. Although no preventive serum has been found, the drug known as Dapsone has proven very effective in curing leprosy. Reconstructive surgery and follow-up therapy are helping to reverse its crippling effects.

The first step in healing those afflicted with leprosy is to locate them, especially the children, and to begin treatment at the earliest possible stage of the disease. The next step is to convince the older patients that the disease is controllable and curable, and that it has no relation to a past life or to one’s religious belief.

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Tags: India Children Health Care Poor/Poverty