Combating the stigma of leprosy is as important as fighting the disease, says a Christian organization in India which is trying a new form of therapy for those living with an infectious disease that has afflicted humankind for millennia.
“Leprosy-affected people are often treated as useless people to be banished from the society,” said Harold Williams, communications officer of The Leprosy Mission (TLM) India.
However, a pilot art workshop held here for people with leprosy and their families has demonstrated that people living with leprosy “can be as creative as others,” Mr. Williams said.
The mission hopes to replicate a workshop held in October as a program in its leprosy centres throughout India. With 31 hospitals and 41 leprosy centres, TLM India helps 250,000 patients a year.
India accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s 673,000 registered leprosy cases, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics for 2000.
In 1999, the country detected 538,000 new cases of the disease, which is found mostly in poor regions of the world, according to WHO.
Long considered an incurable disease that made social outcasts of its sufferers, the infection today, with proper drug therapy, can be halted within a year.
But in addition to health care, people with leprosy need recognition, said Dr. Daphne Wilfred, a senior specialist at the TLM India hospital in New Delhi.
Even if people are fully cured of leprosy, Dr. Wilfred said, “The social stigma haunts them wherever they go.
“We need to give great publicity to the creative talents of these people to convince the public that leprosy-affected people are as capable as others. Art is a good medium for this.”
Titled My Dream, the October workshop brought together 35 young people with leprosy and other disabilities from TLM India centers across the country to work with 10 artists from India and abroad.
One participant, Geeta Sharma, 16, had dropped out of school in eastern Bihar state at the age of 14 after being diagnosed with leprosy.
“Even those at home believe that the leprosy-affected can do nothing,” said Sharma, who had only “reluctantly” agreed to attend the art workshop. She has been undergoing treatment in preparation for reconstructive surgery on her deformed right hand.
“We need encouragement and recognition,” Sharma said.
The Leprosy Mission operates in more than 30 countries.