The week in which two worlds collided

A group of people affected by leprosy living under a flyover in Mumbai, India(Photo: The Leprosy Mission England and Wales)

The chasm between those living comfortably and those living in the world's poorest neighbourhoods has struck me afresh this week. Particularly as the two worlds have seemingly collided. Rather unusually, smack bang in the sunshine state of Florida!

It's always a little surreal to see leprosy hit the national and international news agenda. I always view this as a good thing though. So many people in the UK don't realise that leprosy remains a 21st century disease. It gives us a real opportunity to be a voice for this group of people, all too often pushed to the fringes of society.

No doubt, and quite understandably, many families will be left questioning their trip of a lifetime to Florida. Is it safe? Afterall the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's report on Monday states that central Florida could be an endemic location for leprosy. The report cites that there were 159 new cases of leprosy diagnosed in the US in 2020, with central Florida being particularly problematic.

Statistics can be misleading, can't they? This does sound alarming! Particularly as the CDC report goes on to say, 'travel to this area, even in the absence of other risk factors, should prompt consideration of leprosy.' An excited prospective visitor to Disney World Florida could certainly be forgiven for raising an eyebrow!

But to put this into context, there were 159 cases of leprosy found and cured in the US in 2020 compared with 65,147 in India alone.

Leprosy is a disease of extreme poverty. It thrives where there are overcrowded and poor living conditions. A lack of sanitation and poor nutrition weaken the immune system leaving people susceptible to this terrible disease. As our teams understand it, a person would need to live in extreme poverty for six months with someone with the disease to become infected.

The irony is that while the chances of us catching leprosy in Florida are negligible, at least if we were to catch it, we could access healthcare.

I have been humbled so many times during visits to Africa and Asia. Sitting with people who have travelled night and day to reach a Leprosy Mission hospital. Many had suffered by then heart-wrenching rejection from their families after suspecting the disease. Yet because of the kindness of a stranger in the UK, who they had never even met, they were given a glimmer of hope. They had heard about these special hospitals that wouldn't turn anyone away. That they wouldn't even need to find or beg for money for treatment! Even perhaps that they would be loved as the special people they are, made in God's own image.

The wait at the hospital pharmacy for Multidrug therapy, the antibiotic cure for leprosy, is a time for big emotions. There is the reassurance that this will stop the disease in its tracks. But for those who have already developed disabilities, what does the future hold? Will they be able to work again? How will they even survive? And toughest of all, will they ever be allowed to see their beautiful children's faces again.

I have sat and wept with too many people at this overwhelming juncture in their lives. Humbled and yet secure in the knowledge that my circumstances in the UK are a million miles from theirs, catching leprosy is the last thing on my mind. I can simply do what our supporters do each time they give, offer what comfort I can during their greatest hour of need.

The ever-widening gap between the world's richest and the world's poorest was at the very crux of this week's news agenda. Why are we not hearing about the 65,147 diagnosed with leprosy in India in 2020? Or perhaps, even more worryingly, that for every one of these people, there are a hidden 19 people who we desperately need to find and cure of leprosy.

It prompted me to look at the verse given to me by The Leprosy Mission's trustees at my commissioning service back in 2017. It made me thankful that this news story had reminded me of my responsibility to act justly for these people so precious to God.

'And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God' (Micah 6:8 NIV).

Peter Waddup is Chief Executive of The Leprosy Mission