Editorial: Leprosy, still a concern

WHAT many think is a long-gone disease is still around as reported by the Department of Health-Davao. That's leprosy, a disease that dates back since biblical times but globally declared to have been "eliminated as a public health problem" 18 years ago, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In 2017, Leprosy cases increased to 174 from 2016's 125. DOH-Leprosy Control Program medical coordinator Dr. Vergel Bautista, however, failed to say how many of these are children as the global target is zero child infection by 2020, that's just three years from now and it seems that the target will not be hit.

"It is a harsh reality that nine out of every 100 new cases diagnosed today are children," said Dr. Erwin Cooreman, Team Leader of WHO's Global Leprosy Programme, was quoted as saying in a WHO press release. "The world has the tools, the right medicines and the political will - yet we are falling short of detecting the disease in time, particularly among children."

"Leprosy in children clearly shows that transmission of the infection is occurring in many communities and that detection efforts are inadequate," added Dr. Cooreman. "We again re-emphasize the importance of periodic follow-up, contact tracing and monitoring of everyone in a household where a case is detected."

Leprosy is caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, which has a very long incubation period, an average of five years or longer. The disease attacks the nerve endings and destroys the body's ability to feel pain.

As reported by WHO, from 145 countries in six regions, there were 216,108 newly diagnosed cases in 2016 of which 18,472 are children.

But, leprosy is curable and early treatment prevents disability with multidrug therapy made available for free through the WHO.

As leprosy eats into the flesh, those with leprosy are discriminated if not banished, the children are bullied and in most cases are forced to drop out of school because of the stigma attached to the disease.

This same stigma is what is causing those affected to hide their disease, and thus not receive appropriate treatment and contributes to the perpetuation of the disease.

Thus, the challenge is in combating stigma and ensuring that those afflicted are diagnosed early. It will help if people who suspect they have the disease be encouraged to step forward, and communities that realize they have an afflicted member in their midst to seek medical assistance in the most humane way possible, sans the gossips, disparaging looks, banishment, and discrimination we tend to give to those we do not want to be associated with.

What leprosy needs is a cure, not an impetus to hide and let the disease fester. Because like many old diseases, leprosy is already curable.
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