Kathmandu, January 25

Leprosy-related discrimination, stigma and prejudice are the most powerful barriers to ending leprosy for good, especially given the disease is 100 per cent curable when detected early, said the New Delhi-based World Health Organisation Regional Office for South-East Asia today.

Though the number of leprosy cases has steadily declined worldwide, an estimated 200,000 cases continue to be reported every year, with India accounting for more than half. Significant numbers are detected elsewhere in the WHO South-East Asia countries, including Nepal, and other places like Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific.

“Though leprosy is often equated with serious deformity and disability, the percentage of patients that present with these symptoms is down to six per cent, demonstrating the disease is being diagnosed earlier than ever.

More than that, however, it demonstrates that leprosy needn’t cause the disability and deformity that fuels leprosy-related discrimination, stigma and prejudice,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO regional director for South-East Asia, in the press release issued on the occasion of the World Leprosy Day (January 27).

According to her, as core public health interventions such as active case-finding, improved treatment regimens and strengthened surveillance continue to drive-down leprosy’s incidence and spread, the disease’s bio-social components must be brought to the fore. As outlined in WHO’s Global Leprosy Strategy 2016-2020, policies that promote inclusion and aim at ending leprosy-related discrimination, stigma and prejudice should be front and centre of all leprosy programmes, both as goods in themselves as well as powerful tools to achieve a leprosy-free region and world.

“First among them is empowering people with leprosy to be agents of social change. This could include training them in advocacy and social mobilisation to enhance community buy-in and secure high-level support and funding for leprosy programmes. Second is the need to promote access to purpose-built social and financial support for persons affected by leprosy. And finally, the human rights of persons affected by leprosy must be prioritised,” Dr Kshetrapal suggested.

She said WHO remained committed to providing member states the normative and material support needed to chart bold progress.