‘London’s history shows just what is possible globally today’

Leprosy is no longer a problem in London today and can be defeated globally. 'Ending leprosy together' is at the very heart of the Lord Mayor’s Show on Saturday (13 November).

The City of London has elected Alderman Vincent Keaveny as the next Lord Mayor. Alderman Keaveny is a senior member of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem and a long-time supporter of The Leprosy Mission.

To mark Alderman Keaveny becoming the 693rd Lord Mayor of the City of London, the two organisations have teamed up for the Lord Mayor’s parade.

Under the banner of 'ending leprosy together', representatives will ride on a green open top vintage bus. The bus will form part of the 11am parade from Mansion House to the Royal Courts of Justice. On board will be Dan and Babs Izzett, a couple who have lived with the effects of leprosy for 50 years. A service of thanksgiving follows at 11.30am on Sunday (14 November) at St Pancras Old Church where Dan Izzett will share his life story.

Speaking at Mansion House ahead of the Show, Norman Hunter Rose of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem said: “I am delighted that The Leprosy Mission is taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show in partnership with the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem.

“I have admired the work of The Leprosy Mission in supporting those affected by leprosy and their families and communities around the world for many years.

“It is wonderful to see that work showcased and celebrated in the Lord Mayor’s Show.”

The Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem was founded over 900 years ago. It began with the construction of a leprosy hospital outside the walls of Jerusalem in the early 12th Century.

This was at a time when leprosy was a regular feature of life in London and across England. There were more than 320 religious houses and hospitals for the care of leprosy patients established from the end of the 11th Century and 1350.

Until the 1980s there was no cure for leprosy. If left untreated leprosy can cause serious and irreversible disabilities, including blindness. As a result, it has always been a feared disease which sees people pushed to the fringes of society.

Leprosy was once a huge problem in the City of London. Those with leprosy were pushed out of the city to a hospice on the site of St Giles in the Fields, near to Centre Point. It was assigned to the Order of St Lazarus in 1299.

Head of Fundraising at The Leprosy Mission, Louise Timmins, explained that leprosy is largely a disease of poverty. It thrives where there is poor housing, overcrowding, a lack of sanitation and malnutrition. This weakens immune systems, making people more susceptible to leprosy.

Louise said it is the emotional impact of leprosy that makes it such a devastating disease.

She said: "There are so many myths about leprosy in the countries where we work. Tragically this means that people with the disease often face extreme discrimination.

“Because of this people often hide the early signs of leprosy for fear of being rejected by their families, communities and society as a whole. It is completely heartbreaking as, without treatment, they then go on to develop irreversible disabilities. All too often they find themselves living the life they feared most.

“Having spent time in communities affected by leprosy across Africa and Asia, it has been fascinating for me to look into London’s leprosy past.

“We have a Carol service at St Giles in the Fields Church every year to mark the link between London’s leprosy history and our vision of defeating leprosy globally today.

“It is quite hard to believe that St Giles was literally ‘in the fields’ between the City of London and Westminster when it is at the heart of bustling city life today.

“Similarly, St James’s Palace is built on the site of a leprosy hospital. At the time it was still part of the farmland and countryside outside London with Green Park a swampy burial ground for its patients.”

Louise said a decline in the number of leprosy cases in England coincided with major improvements to public health.

Disease thrived in medieval cities like London where there were no sewage systems or fresh water supplies. The last indigenous leprosy case in England was recorded in 1798 following major improvements to public health.

Louise said: “A lot of our work today is improving living conditions in vulnerable communities where leprosy hides. This could be providing families with homes and a clean water supply. Or it could mean advocating to government to install electricity to a leprosy colony.

“It is a mammoth task, but we are steadily improving living conditions within some of the most marginalised communities affected by leprosy across Asia and Africa.

“It is encouraging to know improvements to public health made such a difference in London. In the UK today leprosy is largely a forgotten disease.

“It seems fitting that the City of London can remember this part of its history at the Lord Mayor’s Show on Saturday.

“It is our hope that it prompts individuals to take up the call to finally rid the world of leprosy and the pain and suffering it causes.”

The Leprosy Mission's Carol Concert takes place at 12.50pm on Friday 10 December at St Giles in the Fields church, featuring Christmas music by the Tredici Choir.

Everyone is welcome but, for seating purposes, please RSVP by 1 December by calling 01733 370505, or email post@tlmew.org.uk.