BENGALURU: Although India was declared leprosy-free in 2005 and former Union Minister Arun Jaitley had once announced that the country would eliminate leprosy by 2018, Karnataka’s health & family welfare department has recorded 1,542 new cases of leprosy with 130 cases -- the highest -- being reported from Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) limits alone in the seven months from April to October 2019.
A senior department official clarified that although India was declared leprosy-free in 2005, new cases have been cropping up in different parts of the country. According to Dr Rangaswamy, joint director (leprosy), health & family welfare department, “Eradication means there should be zero cases, while elimination means less than one case detected in a population of 10,000. We have achieved the latter. But there still are pockets of transmission, not necessarily restricted to low-income areas, but are more prevalent there.”
Asked why the BBMP area recorded the highest number of new cases in these months, Dr Rangaswamy said a bigger floating population, labour migration and congestion has aided the spread of the disease, recording 130 new cases in these seven months.Department officials also said the new 1,542 leprosy cases are an addition to the 2,167 cases which had been detected previously. Of the new cases, 61 were children.
‘Eradicating leprosy seems impossible; can be controlled’
Of the new cases, 61 were children, 576 were women, and the rest were men. As per recent numbers, 35 cases of deformity were detected in these months. The National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP) of the Government of India includes intensive searches once in six months by accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs), which are later validated by Primary Health Centres.
Once detected, patients are subjected to multi-drug therapy treatment to control the disease. The department officials said one of the reasons this dream of making India leprosy-free is yet to be realised is due to the hidden nature of this disease and the stigma surrounding it.Dr Rangaswamy said: “Stigma is one of the issues, which is why we undertake health education to help people overcome it. Sometimes, the patches are dismissed as birth moles or marks. Only when they are bigger do people report it. Several times, the delay in reporting leads to deformity.”
A former leprosy consultant who worked with the Karnataka government, but did not wish to be named, said, “During our National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP) screening programmes, the health worker would ask to examine the family members in their home but they would refuse, owing to stigma. For example, if a woman of marriageable age is examined, others in society would shun her and she would not get a groom, owing to fear of leprosy. This is irrespective of whether she even has it. To get past this, ASHA workers were advised to casually check for patches while checking for other diseases as well,” the former consultant said, adding, “It may not be possible to eradicate this disease from the root but we can control it.”
He added: “Leprosy does not manifest in the form of symptoms till about 5-6 years after the person has been infected by the bacteria. It spreads in their body making early detection difficult. In the early stages, patches may form on the back/buttocks of the person which is not an area visible to them easily. By the time it spreads to the hands, face and legs, the infection has spread over 50 per cent of the body.”