How climate change fuels the spread of leprosy

The climate crisis is the biggest threat to human health. At The Leprosy Mission we’re welcoming the very first Health Day at COP 28 on Sunday [3 December].

Evidence will be presented at the Dubai summit to show how extreme weather is fuelling the spread of disease. This means more illness and an increased number of deaths. Those gathering for the first ever Health Day will also hear how food insecurity is increasing malnutrition. Then there is the direct link between climate change and poor mental health.

Women from a fishing village in Vellanai island, Sri Lanka

Some of the women pictured here in a fishing village in Vellanai island, Sri Lanka have been treated for leprosy. They are believed to have contracted the disease after climate change decimated the fishing industry. As a result, they travelled to the capital of Colombo to work in a garment factory to help support their families.

Chief Executive Peter Waddup said he was encouraged a day had been set aside to advocate for faster and bolder climate action for the sake of health. Peter said he hoped this would improve the health of vulnerable communities in which The Leprosy Mission works in Asia and Africa.

"While climate change has a negative impact on all our lives, for those living in the world's poorest communities it is a matter of life or death," he says.

"Each year my colleagues in Asia and Africa have to halt their planned leprosy work. There is always an urgent need to respond with emergency aid to a climate-exacerbated disaster.

"This year we have seen Cyclone Mocha cause devastation in Myanmar and Bangladesh. As well as causing death and injuring hundreds, our orthopaedic workshops in Sittwe in Myanmar was ripped apart by the 130mph winds. Then there is the now three-year drought in the Horn of Africa which has left millions of people trapped in hunger.

"It is a real injustice as the lives most impacted by these climatic disasters are those with the smallest carbon footprints."

Peter said he is hearing from project staff how climate change is directly fuelling the spread of leprosy.

"Just last month my colleague returned from visiting one of our projects in Northern Sri Lanka," he said.

"He was visiting a community on the island of Vellanai where the fishermen are now struggling to make a living. This is due to the monsoon winds weakening because of climate change. As a result, there is less plankton offshore and, therefore, less fish. This has caused real hardship for the fishermen and their families. As a result, eight of the women from the community travelled to the capital Colombo to work in a garment factory.

"Now it appears these women contracted leprosy during their time in Colombo and brought it back to the island. The government previously said that leprosy had been eliminated on Vellanai. Yet when my colleague visited last month, 13 women had been diagnosed with leprosy in the very small community.

“This example hit home to me just how vulnerable the people we serve are to climate change. There is a clear link between economic migration due to climate change and the spread of disease. My hope is that real progress is made at COP 28 for the sake of those living in the very vulnerable communities in which we work."

For interview opportunities please contact:

Charlotte Walker

The Leprosy Mission England and Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man

Peterborough PE2 5GZ
Mob: 07940 721760


About The Leprosy Mission England and Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man:

The Leprosy Mission is an international Christian development organisation striving to defeat leprosy and transform lives. It serves people affected by leprosy, other neglected tropical diseases, and disability.

The England and Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man office currently focuses its work in 10 countries where leprosy remains both a chronic disease and a social challenge. These are: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. Interventions are wide-ranging and holistic, not just addressing the disease itself but also ensuring social inclusion and quality of life. As well as medical work, areas of activity include housing, water, sanitation, education, employment, advocacy, and empowerment.

About leprosy

  • Leprosy is a mildly infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae (a relative of the tuberculosis bacterium or ‘TB’ germ). It can stay in the body for up to 30 years without showing symptoms.
  • Leprosy causes nerve damage and, if left untreated, can lead to a loss of sensation and movement around the eyes, hands and feet. This can lead to disability and the amputation of limbs. Leprosy also damages nerves in the face causing problems with blinking, eventually leading to blindness.
  • Leprosy is not hereditary. An estimated 95% of people, if exposed, would never develop leprosy due to having normal, healthy immunity.
  • It is most common in places of poverty where overcrowding and poor nutrition, housing and sanitation allow people to become more susceptible to leprosy infection. At highest risk are those in households living in long-term, close contact with an untreated member(s) having leprosy. This is why early diagnosis and screening contacts is important.
  • The last case of indigenous leprosy in the UK was diagnosed in 1798; and although it is no longer contracted in this country, around 12 new cases are diagnosed in the UK each year.
  • Leprosy is curable with Multidrug therapy (MDT), a combination of three antibiotics taken for 6-12 months.
  • Whether before, during or after treatment - built-up leprosy bacterial residues can make patients vulnerable to unpredictable and long inflammatory episodes called leprosy reactions – which can lead to nerve damage and disability development even years after technical cure. Besides limiting transmission, this is why early diagnosis is so important.
  • Lack of education, however, means that many people affected by leprosy are still stigmatised, even after they have been cured, especially if the disease has caused disability.
  • There is evidence today to suggest that for every person cured of leprosy today, there are 19 ‘hidden’ cases that need to be found and treated.