We have specialist shoemakers to build shoes to support a leprosy-affected person’s damaged feet. These have thick soles, often made from old vehicle tyres, so that they cannot be perforated by glass or debris and injure numb feet.
In some cases untreated leprosy causes a person’s feet to become so infected that they can no longer walk on them. Although it might take months of hospital rehabilitation, we will always seek ways to help such patients become more mobile and therefore independent.
In the late 1940s British orthopaedic surgeon Dr Paul Brand became the first surgeon in the world to use reconstructive surgery to correct the deformities of leprosy in the hands and feet. He also proved that the shortening of fingers and toes in leprosy patients was entirely due to infection and injury, and therefore preventable. After around 40 years working with The Leprosy Mission, Dr Brand became the President of The Leprosy Mission International in 1993 in recognition of his remarkable contribution to transforming the lives of those affected by this cruel disease.
The most common leprosy-caused disabilities that can be corrected by surgery are a clawed hand, foot drop and a clawed toe. Movement can be restored by using a muscle transfer technique where, with the help of a physiotherapist, a muscle is identified for transfer and strengthened. After surgery and several weeks in plaster, the patient is taught how to use their old muscle to do a new job and then apply the technique subconsciously. The results can see a leprosy-affected person walk again without dragging their foot on the ground or use their hand to grip items.
In a similar way, leprosy patients no longer able to close their eyes as a result of nerve damage (called lagophthalmos), can undergo Temporalis Muscle Transfer. This sees a muscle used for chewing transferred to the eyes so that, after a period of recovery, a person can close their eyes once again by clenching their teeth. This protects the eyes and can spare a person from blindness.
The fitting of ‘life-like’ prostheses can transform the lives of people who have lost lower legs as a result of leprosy. We offer this opportunity in many of the countries in which we work. A particularly pioneering prosthetic limb service has been launched in Myanmar (Burma). It sees a truck manned by four physiotherapists touring the country making fitting prostheses for leprosy-affected people.
Counselling and tending to the spiritual and emotional needs of people affected by leprosy are an integral part of our care and health services.
Neelmani Bensa, counsellor at The Leprosy Mission’s Naini Hospital in Northern India, said: “In some ways counselling is more important than the drug treatment. It’s the heart and soul that matters. The body is temporary, people can overcome physical challenges, but the spirit takes the longest time to heal. For many people the diagnosis of leprosy has taken away all hope. I allow people affected by leprosy to vent their feelings, to cry; emotional healing is so important.
After counselling, surgery, support for education and training, and help to access employment I have seen broken people transformed into respected figures in their community; people who others now look up to for inspiration. Healing is not just medical, it’s a healing of the heart and soul, empowering a person to achieve a life of dignity and worth.”