If we want sustainable leprosy services, there’s a solution staring us in the face.
Leprosy is different from other diseases because health workers have to go out and search for patients. The stigma attached to leprosy makes it difficult for those who suspect they have the disease to come forward for treatment.
Over the years I have met many people and families impacted by this disease. Faced with stigma and discrimination, some have given up hope, but others have strongly resisted. People affected by leprosy do not want others to undergo the suffering they themselves have experienced. If we are to reduce the burden of leprosy further, then we must build on this sentiment and encourage it. Individuals and families affected by leprosy have the right to receive diagnosis and treatment, and this must be protected.
It is not feasible to expect to find every new case by sending out health workers. I believe it is those with personal experience of leprosy, their families, and the groups they form, who could play this role. Since the 1980s, some 16 million people have been treated with multidrug therapy. Empowering them to look out for their families and neighbors would tremendously boost the capability to find new cases.
Of course, empowerment derives from diverse factors, including the activities of local support groups and associations, and individual attainment of social and economic status. But it also comes from raising people’s “leprosy literacy” through various tools, measures and opportunities.
I do not dispute the fact that health care workers have an important role. I believe, however, that what is more sustainable over the long term is empowering families and local communities to recognize the disease and act on that knowledge.
Leprosy has shown it cannot be wiped out in a single campaign. The key to fighting the disease lies in the great potential of the people and groups impacted by leprosy. Surely, they are fundamental to the solution to achieving a world free from leprosy and its consequences.（April 2014）