Discrimination, stigma and prejudice are the biggest barriers to ending leprosy, says the WHO.
India accounts for more half of the estimated 2,00,000 cases reported every year, though the number of leprosy cases has steadily declined worldwide. Leprosy is detected in significant numbers in the WHO South-East Asia Region, Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific.
WHO’s Global Leprosy Strategy 2016-2020 outlines policies that promote inclusion and keeps the ending of leprosy-related discrimination, stigma and prejudice at the front and centre of all leprosy programmes.
It is often the disability and deformity that fuels leprosy-related discrimination, stigma, and prejudice, even though the disease needn’t cause the disabilities which are often equated with it. The percentage of patients that present with these symptoms is down to 6%, demonstrating the disease is being diagnosed earlier than ever.
Given the fact that the disease is 100% curable when detected early, the human rights of persons affected by leprosy must be prioritised, besides empowering people with leprosy to be agents of social change, it said. There is also a need to promote access to purpose-built social and financial support for persons affected by leprosy.
In recent years India, along with other countries in the region and beyond, has repealed legislation that discriminates against persons affected by leprosy: In 2016, for example, it repealed the draconian colonial-era Lepers Act, and recently repealed a law allowing leprosy as legitimate grounds for divorce. Both initiatives are to be commended, WHO notes.