Ancient Enemy: Leprosy in India

How are health workers tackling the deeply rooted stigma associated with leprosy as well as the disease?

Leprosy in India still persists, despite being officially “eliminated” in 2005. Stigma remains a huge obstacle to early diagnosis and treatment of this curable disease.

Health hero Rajni Kant Singh has been working as a state coordinator for a leprosy NGO for many years. He laments the fact that since leprosy was declared eliminated in India in 2005 it has slipped off the agenda and resources have dried up. Yet the disease persists in India, with some 130 000 new cases a year. These patients need help with diagnosis, treatment and often social and psychological support too.

We are satisfied. When I go to bed at night, I have very good sleep. So I can say I get satisfaction from working with this disease.

by Lifelines Health Hero Rajni Kant Singh

Rajni and his colleagues engage with the social, medical and psychological aspects of this disease, which has blighted millions of lives for centuries.

Early diagnosis and multi-drug treatment can cure leprosy and prevent disability but stigma still leads to people ignoring symptoms and leaving the bacteria to attack in stages, ultimately becoming untreatable.

Leprosy counsellor Rachna Kumari explains of her own story of social isolation before she was treated.

She was told to not go near other people, espeicially her own children, for fear of infection them. This crushing social isolation is still the fate of many cured leprosy patients, who even though they are no longer contagious, are excluded from social life because of the physical disabilities created by the disease that are visible.

From health workers and counsellors, to surgeons and shoe makers: from people who live in leprosy colonies to those who demand more from the Indian government – there is still work being done to support people with leprosy in the poorest regions of India.

Leprosy remains a salutary lesson of how ‘elimination’ may not be the end of the story when such disease is allowed to remain neglected and even potentially backslide. 

Lifelines: The Quest for Global Health profiles the extraordinary work of global health workers in their quest to rid the world of the deadly neglected diseases and conditions that keep millions of people in poverty.