The race to find the missing leprosy cases lost during lockdown

As India prepares for a third wave of the coronavirus, there is an urgent need to find the missing leprosy cases lost during the country’s lockdowns.

New statistics published by the World Health Organisation reveal the number of people treated for leprosy in India fell by 43 per cent in 2020. This is from 114,451 new cases in 2019 to 65,147 in 2020.

Chief Executive of The Leprosy Mission, Peter Waddup, described the new data as deeply troubling. He said it by no means reflected that a corner had been turned in the fight to rid India of leprosy.

“Many will remember dreadful scenes in 2020 of migrant workers fleeing lockdowns in Indian cities for their villages," said Peter.

"Then came the brutal second wave early this year which devastated India as hospitals ran out of beds, medicines and oxygen.

“Leprosy Mission hospital and community staff were on the frontline for so long. There was no option but to turn to the immediate need of saving lives and providing urgent food parcels and emergency medical care.

“The WHO figures for 2020 are of grave concern, particularly in India where lockdowns saw people confined to their communities.

"A stop to public transport saw them unable to reach Leprosy Mission outpatients' departments to seek treatment. A virtual collapse of the country's health system saw leprosy detection work fall right down the priority list.

"As a result, there are a huge number of people in India who are at risk of life-long disabilities because of leprosy. This is utterly heartbreaking as there is such a simple antibiotic cure."

Leprosy is a disease of poverty and, due to the deep prejudice surrounding it, is very much a hidden disease. Research undertaken before the pandemic showed that for every person cured of leprosy, there were a further 19 people needing to be cured.

Peter said the number of people needing to be found and cured of leprosy had now skyrocketed.

"My incredible colleagues in India are reaching out to more people than ever before," he said.

"They have stepped up the number of mobile clinics and there is a large-scale awareness campaign. This seeks to stamp out the stigma surrounding leprosy and signpost people to treatment. We pray this will be in the early stages of the disease before disability sets in.

"The Leprosy Mission's Advent Appeal is a rescue package for our hospital and community services in India.

"Sixteen-year-old Maya is now in one of our hospitals waiting to have reconstructive surgery on her hand. Leprosy caused her fingers to stiffen and curl, but thanks to our amazing supporters she can have surgery to straighten them.

“Happily, she will be able to go back to school after surgery and live her life to the full. But there are so many more like Maya who need urgent treatment.”

Peter added: “Research revealed in just the first 12-months alone of the pandemic in India, 230 million people were plunged into poverty because of Covid.

"We know that leprosy thrives in conditions of poverty and are doing our utmost to find, treat and care for people affected by the disease.

“We are determined that Covid will not undo decades of work to help people living in communities affected by leprosy live healthier and more prosperous lives.

"This is only made possible by the love and compassion of our amazing supporters whose prayers and generosity we need now more than ever before."