Globally, January 26 of every year is commemorated as the World Leprosy Day (WLD). The world marks the day to raise awareness of the disease that many people believe to be extinct. But my clinical knowledge about Leprosy was very shallow. I hitherto presumed, it is an ancient contagious and deadly disease acclaimed to have existed as far back as 500BC and that it can be curtailed only by isolating the affected person in a colony to prevent infecting people globally.
I became cognizant of leprosy disease proper in 2018 when I was one of the officials of the Chapel of Glory, Ogun State Christian Pilgrims Welfare Board, led by the Chaplain, Pastor Julius Oderinde to present food items among others to lepers’ Colony at Iberekodo, Abeokuta.
There I got wind of the havoc leprosy disease had caused humanity and how it is cable of wrecking socio-economic development of nation if not checked, particularly given the general negligence in Nigeria. This prompted me to crave for public awareness and support from well-meaning Nigerians on the reemergence of the disease and the need for government at all levels to put in place effective surveillance as well as control measures.
In a document from National Tuberculosis and Leprosy Control Programme, Nigeria is among the 17 countries in the world that are still reporting more than 1,000 new cases of Leprosy annually. Despite achieving the World Health Organization’s (WHO) elimination target of less than one person per 10,000 populations at national level in 1998, with these significant pockets of leprosy disease, its endemicity remains at sub-national level across the country.
These pockets are mostly located in 19 states which include; Ogun, Akwa-Ibom, Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Ebonyi, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, Kogi, Niger, Sokoto, Taraba, Yobe, and Zamfara, while cases in other states are in clusters. It is estimated that 4000 leprosy cases occur in Nigeria annually and Ogun State is one of the states where leprosy cases are being noticed every quarter of the year.
The disease has been around since ancient times, often surrounded by terrifying negative stigma with incurable myths and mutilations.
Medical experts revealed that, incubation period varies from person to person, while it might take about three to six years in some people before the symptoms appears after coming in contact with the bacterium, it takes 20 years in others before the symptoms finally appears.
This long incubation period makes it very difficult for doctors to determine except through diagnosis called “skin biopsy”. But the concern is how to detect this disease early before escalating and causing irreparable bodily damage to unsuspecting Nigerians.
By and large, the disease is now completely curable but great numbers of people are not only unaware of the disease but also suffering silently from this curable disease due to reduced and lackadaisical government’s stand, poor public awareness and continued public stigma attached to the patients.
For instance, the creation of lepers’ settlement or colony has further worsened their plights as people regard them as dreadful personality making them to despair without supports in life.
An expert disclosed that, those that are living in lepers’ colony have been treated and are completely healthy, but the challenge is the left over physical disabilities which are evidences of being victims of the bacterium.
What the treated patients need include socio- economic support, financial aids and proper integration into normal life.
But the challenges have been consistent poor awareness on the disease at the grassroots and misconceptions that the disease is highly contagious and without cure.
Today, patient of new leprosy cases are no more isolated in colony unlike old practice; they are now being treated like normal patients with free clinical therapy and drugs at various health facilities.
This is due to discovery of modern drugs like Dapsone, Rifampicin and Dofazamine and the adoption of Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) that cures leprosy patient in a- 12 month dose, just like the discovery of antiretroviral drugs to stem HIV/AIDs endemic in the society today.
Mr. Pius Ogbu, an expert and the Operations Manager, Leprosy Mission Nigeria said leprosy is being regarded as a “defeated disease” and people do not regard it as dreadful.
He said the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration in 1998 that Nigeria had achieved the global health body’s target of reducing the proportion of leprosy patients to below one case per 10,000 people, led to loss of interest at sustaining the tempo of surveillance and that people assumed the disease will die a natural death which doesn’t work that way.
One of the shocking facts is that, there are records of new surges of the disease across the worlds which portend great danger for innocent people.
What this requires is the collective actions from federal and state governments as well as the general public to wake up to their responsibilities and continue to create awareness about this bacillus before it back fires.
Let’s change the notion being carried about that leprosy is completely eradicated’, not that success had not be recorded, but the notion will continue to cause negligence and promote care free attitude about the disease in the society.
Ositelu, Of Ministry of Information & Strategy, Ogun State, Nigeria