Leprosy ‘resurgence’ during Ebola outbreak

As comparisons between the stigma of leprosy and Ebola abound, Charlotte Walker writes about the fear and misinformation surrounding both diseases.

The word ‘leprosy’ is suddenly littering the internet. So too is the outdated label ‘leper’, a term defining a person by their disease and associated with someone who has been rejected, ostracised or outcast from society.

The reason why leprosy has had a cyber-resurgence? Ebola. Both are neglected diseases which are prevalent in Africa and are feared, misunderstood and stigmatised. But, aside from poverty and suffering, this is largely where the similarity ends.

While our colleagues in Nigeria challenge the national press for printing completely unfounded ‘suggestions’ like treating Ebola with leprosy drugs (Ebola is viral while leprosy is bacterial), the fear and stigma surrounding the terrible outbreak draws in leprosy as an unfortunate comparison.

Perhaps those using the analogy aren’t even aware that leprosy remains a real 21st problem with more than 200,000 new cases diagnosed each year and around three million people living with irreversible disability as a consequence. But it is telling how in the UK, where neither Ebola or leprosy are indigenous, a bewildered young boy from Sierra Leone was treated ‘like a leper’ as a new pupil at Stockport Catholic Primary School.

It is also revealing that leprosy is still catastrophized into being the ‘worst possible thing’, both physically and socially. In reality it is simply a mildly infectious disease that is unlikely to leave no lasting effects if treated with a simple cause of antibiotics in its early stages. Although, tragically, there is no licenced cure or vaccine for Ebola which has claimed almost 5,000 lives to date, there are valuable lessons to be learnt from leprosy.

Stigma is borne out of fear and ignorance. It is a human reaction. We are genetically coded for self-preservation. But education changes attitudes and, in the long-term, the course of a much-feared disease. Half of all new cases of leprosy are diagnosed in India yet 85 per cent of the population of cosmopolitan Delhi do not know there is a cure, a myth we are working hard to dispel.

Those working to educate people that Ebola cannot be caught from a sneeze or cough but from bodily fluids coming into contact with the eyes, nose, mouth and broken skin, might not see themselves as lifesaving frontline workers but their job is imperative. It is also reassuring for us, globally, to know that those displaying no Ebola symptoms are highly likely not to be infectious, adding credence to airport screening.

Through Jesus, God gives us the blueprint of how to treat those who have been ostracised from society. Jesus had a special mission to the marginalised which is illustrated in Matthew 8 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy. The chapter begins with Jesus coming down from the mountainside with large crowds following him. Purposely he separates himself to speak to a man who only knows loneliness and solitude as he has lost everything to leprosy.

The man asks Jesus to ‘make him clean’. Jesus’s response is to destroy the myth that God is punishing or rejecting him by reaching out and touching him – breaking through the pain of exclusion and to offer love and acceptance to this hurting man and, at the same time, curing his leprosy.

Jesus teaches us to treat the marginalised how we would like to be treated should, heaven forbid, we find ourselves in such circumstances – in a measured, calm manner and, crucially, with compassion.