Communicating correct knowledge of leprosy is key to early detection and treatment
Mahatma Gandhi, India’s “Father of the Nation,” dreamed of realising a world free of leprosy and the stigma and discrimination it causes. In 2005, India achieved something considered impossible at the time: It attained the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target for eliminating leprosy as a public health problem. This achievement garnered praise around the world as an “Indian miracle”. Now, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Government of India has set an ambitious goal of zero leprosy and zero discrimination by 2030 and is actively pursuing it.
I have travelled the world as the WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and seen the measures being taken by different countries, but no country is more committed to resolving the issue of leprosy than India. Once again, I would like to pay tribute to its efforts.
According to the most recent global update from WHO, India reported an annual total of 114,451 new cases in 2019, the highest of any country and accounting for 56% of the global total.
Leprosy is a curable disease. The drugs that cure leprosy are available free. Once a patient starts a course of treatment he or she is no longer infectious. Early symptoms are often painless, however, and this may cause people to delay seeking treatment, and this can later lead to disability. Early detection and prompt treatment are thus important both to prevent disability as well as to stop transmitting the disease to others.
In recent years, the Indian government has been stepping up its work against leprosy. In particular, the annual number of new patients with visible disabilities (grade-2 disabilities) at the time of diagnosis has almost halved compared to 2015. This can be said to be a result of the government’s efforts to promote early detection.
Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) play a major role in early detection. ASHA take great pride in their work of visiting houses, checking on people’s health, looking for signs of leprosy, and connecting people with health centers if infection is suspected.
Last year, in cooperation with the ministry of health & family welfare and WHO, The Nippon Foundation and the Sasakawa Health Foundation produced a flipchart to assist ASHA in their work
The flipchart helps ASHA to communicate correct knowledge of leprosy to households in an easy-to-understand manner and explain the importance of early treatment. Distribution of the flipchart has already been completed in Gujarat, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, and there are plans to distribute it in West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand by 2022.
Last year, I attended an event to present flipcharts to ASHA in Gujarat. I was impressed by their reaction: They said the flipchart will help them carry out their work more effectively and were keen to make use of it. The ministry of health has produced a video that shows in an easy-to-understand way how to use the flipchart. I hope that the video will be shared with all 800,000 ASHA across India and that the flipchart will contribute to the early detection of leprosy.
January 30 is a special and important day for the people of India. To realise the “Leprosy-free India” that Mahatma Gandhi dreamed of, I hope that it will a day for everyone to deepen their understanding of leprosy.
Yohei Sasakawa is chairman, Nippon Foundation and WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Recipient Gandhi Peace Prize 2018
The views expressed are personal