India may be hailed as a leprosy-free zone by health administrators worldwide. But the bitter fact is that over a thousand and more are suffering from the terrifying disease.
But public health efforts to treat them have been inadequate, many point out. And the stigma the disease carries with it makes the patients' lives completely miserable.
AdvertisementLeprosy is an ancient, much feared disease. But although it is infectious and spreads like tuberculosis, it is very hard to catch.
Still it is eminently curable. Besides most people are believed to have some natural immunity to the germ responsible.
It is estimated that in the past 20 years, 15 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy, a majority of them in India.
Recently India announced it had "eliminated" leprosy. But then elimination simply means there is now fewer than one case in every 10,000 persons. Given India's vast population, this means there are more than a 150,000 new cases each year.
Worse there is so much stigma attached to the disease that even after being cured of leprosy, chances of integrating with the mainstream are slim. So they all tend to live together in their own ghettoes. Today there are more than 1,000 leprosy colonies in India, it is said. And most leprosy patients survive by begging.
India has stopped actively searching for leprosy cases. Instead it now expects communities to recognise the disease and do what they can to mitigate the problem. That is a very disturbing trend, say activists.
Indications are that leprosy could continue to disfigure and disable Indians well into the 21st Century.