World Leprosy Day highlights ongoing suffering
In the minds of many Christians, leprosy conjures up images from the gospels and memories of stories heard in Sunday school. But World Leprosy Day on 26 January was a reminder that the disease is not a thing of the past.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported more than 166,000 new cases of leprosy in South East Asia in 2012 – 135,000 of them in India alone.
The disease is easily treatable with modern medicine, but there is no effective vaccine to prevent it. The only one currently available, the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine, is only 26 per cent to 41 per cent effective, according to controlled trials.
Many people in poorer and more isolated areas lack the necessary resources, knowledge and understanding of prevention tactics.
Those who either cannot access the cure in time, or who only begin to receive treatment after deformities set in, are forced to live in colonies with other sufferers, ostracised from their families and society at large.
The Christian charity Gospel for Asia (GFA) estimates that there are tens of thousands of people living in around a thousand of these colonies across South Eastern Asia.
"Life can be utterly hopeless and desperate for those forced to live in leprosy colonies," says Dr Danny Johnson, director of medical outreach for GFA.
"While most of society has run away from these victims, GFA has run toward them, not only sharing with them the latest in medical treatments and personal care, but also the message of Jesus' never-ending love. We are communicating hope and demonstrating love where previously there was none. That's life-changing."
In an attempt to combat this disfiguring illness, French philanthropist Raoul Follereau founded World Leprosy Day as an opportunity to teach people how to identify leprosy's symptoms, the best ways to limit exposure, and how effective treatment options work.
World Leprosy Day is designated as 26January because that is the date of the death of Mahatma Ghandi – hero of the nation where leprosy is a huge problem.
This past week the leprosy workers of GFA have been cleaning the colonies and the homes of individual patients, in addition to their normal care of patients.
Missionary teams have also been providing gifts such as blankets, shoes and goats – which can be used for individual or collective income solutions.
The regular care provided by the GFA leprosy ministry includes food distribution, medical aid, health and hygiene awareness programmes, adult education and tuition centres for children.
Baishali, who lives in a leprosy colony with 24 other families, speaks of her gratitude for the work of the missionaries on the GFA website: "My husband and I both are affected with leprosy. These four sisters [missionaries] are coming and visiting us. It gives us inner peace because our relatives have never visited us."
The ministry also offers Sunday school and fellowship groups to those forced to live in leprosy colonies.
A message given by GFA Pastor Vagish on their website sums up why Christians care for leprosy sufferers: "Our Creator, the Lord Jesus, loved all the sick people, including lepers."