Leprosy: How The Biblical Disease Is Still Costing Lives Today, And How You Can Help

'When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."

'Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy' (Matthew 8: 1-3).

This Lent, many will give up something they enjoy to reflect upon Jesus' journey of self-deprivation. However, in poor communities in the developing world, many people have no choice but to give up even basic commodities because they have been affected by leprosy.

Here in the UK, leprosy is often thought to be a biblical disease of the past, eradicated a long time ago. Unfortunately this isn't true and it is still rife in the poorest of communities overseas, where many affected live below the poverty line, in areas where sanitation is poor, literacy levels are low and many must travel miles to access healthcare.

A leprosy education van.Lepra

Approximately 600 people are diagnosed and treated for leprosy each day and more than 50 of these are children, an indication that it is still being spread. Even though the daily diagnosis is a positive sign, it is estimated that there are approximately 3 million more people living undiagnosed.

Leprosy is an infectious disease that affects the nerves, causing patches of anaesthesia on the skin, meaning that people cannot feel the affected areas. Imagine if you were to walk with a stone in your shoe and not realise it was there. For those with leprosy, this would lead to ulcers and the terrible consequences of severe infection.

If left untreated, leprosy can lead to painful and life-changing disabilities including blindness, leaving many unable to work. With no livelihood they are pushed into further levels of poverty. Not only does leprosy cause physical damage, the stigma around the disease, well known in biblical times, still exists today – many people experience social exclusion and violence, leading them to hide themselves away from society.

Due to the physical and emotional effects of leprosy many people, like Haydar, are often forced to give up their jobs, education, meals, or even their homes if they are cast out of their community.

Haydar lives in a small village in Bangladesh; he faced many difficulties when seeking diagnosis for his symptoms.

'I spent all my money visiting doctors, but nobody diagnosed it as leprosy,' he says. 'Eventually I travelled to a hospital 160km away from my home and they provided me with the correct treatment. I needed to earn money so I continued to work as a rickshaw puller, but this gave me ulcers and I eventually lost my hands and feet to leprosy.'

Treating leprosy early and finding undiagnosed cases is exceptionally important as it reduces the number of disabilities caused by the disease, enabling people to live normal lives, maintain their livelihoods and their emotional wellbeing, preventing them from having to give up the most vital commodities needed to survive.

An audience watches a film about leprosy.Lepra

Lepra is a UK-based international charity, working to beat leprosy. We strive to ensure that people can recognise the symptoms of leprosy through health education. We work to help people access treatment, reconstructive surgery and also aim to dispel the stigma attached to the disease – allowing people to seek diagnosis without fear of judgment.

Lepra works to raise awareness to people living in rural communities with our health education vans, which travel for weeks at a time and cover up to 70 miles each day. The purpose is to educate people about the symptoms of leprosy so they can recognise the signs and access the appropriate and correct treatment. We have two vans in the Indian state of Bihar, which reach 10.8 million people in 4,000 villages. A driver, assistant and member of their team head out on the road equipped with flip charts, pictures and information leaflets. The vans are also equipped with a mobile cinema to play informative films to those who cannot read or write. As 50 per cent of the population are illiterate, this is an effective way of reaching many more people.

Lepra is running a Lent Appeal to support its work. Chief executive Geoff Prescott says: 'Raising awareness is one of the key ways to beat leprosy. This makes sure that more people can access treatment and reduce the number of disabilities caused by the disease. By supporting our appeal, you can help us on our journey to beat leprosy this Lent. By giving up your luxuries you could help prevent vulnerable people from giving up their most vital commodities.'

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