Children with leprosy more than doubled last year according to local statistics raising “serious cause for concern” among Guyana’s Public Health Ministry authorities.
In her feature address at Friday’s launch of World Leprosy Day held at the Umana Yana, Kingston, Georgetown, Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence disclosed that of the 67 new cases of leprosy, children comprised six per cent of the figure.
Though the figure dipped last year, falling to 49 new cases, the percentage of children infected climbed to 14 and this is troubling the Public Health Minister said.
“We have a serious cause for concern. A significant percentage of our children are at risk of this disease, and hence it is imperative that we boldly endorse this year’s theme through education and heightening of public awareness so that all those afflicted by the disease can be encouraged to seek medical assistance before disabilities and deformities become visible,” said Lawrence.
The 67th annual World Leprosy Day was observed this year under the theme ‘Ending Discrimination, Stigma and Prejudice’ and this prompted Lawrence to charge Guyanese to help “destroy the myths about the disease (and) pull down barriers of stigma and discrimination and spread the important message that leprosy can be treated and cured with antibiotics once discovered in the early stages”.
Globally, 30 persons are diagnosed with leprosy every hour. The figure is less depressing in Guyana with almost 6 per month in 2017 (67) and slightly more than four (49) in 2018 contracted the contagious ailment, Leprologist Dr Holly Alexander said.
Alexander lauded the dedication of the MOPH, led by Dr Heather Morris-Wilson, Director of the government’s Leprosy Control Programme, in fighting the disease. The infectious aliment has moved “to the front burner” Alexander said, reminding the audience that lepers can still live “highly productive lives”.
Worrying too is that fact that persons affected with leprosy have a higher prevalence of psychiatric problems than the general population of patients with other diseases. Lawrence reminded that depression can “reinforce feelings of social exclusion, interfere with work and daily life, reduce social interaction and lead to further isolation and in severe cases can lead to suicide.”
“The depression may also lead to, or accentuate a lack of self-care, low self-esteem, strong negative feelings of guilt, self-doubt, anguish, fear and sadness which can impact on the patient’s mental health which can worsen impairments,” Minister Lawrence said.
The global leprosy agenda, is to eliminate the disease at the sub-national despite the myriad challenges, PAHO/WHO representative here, Dr William Adu-Krow said in his presentation.
According to Dr Adu-Krow, obstacles include limited impact on transmission of leprosy; continued delay in detecting new patients; and persisting discrimination against people affected by leprosy are among the most frequent.
To help address those challenges, the Global Leprosy Strategy 2016-2020 ‘Accelerating towards a leprosy-free world’, and endorsed by the WHO Technical Advisory Group, centres around three major pillars, viz: strengthening government ownership and partnerships; ensuring accountability by strengthening monitoring and evaluation in all endemic countries in order to objectively measure progress; and promoting inclusivity by stopping discrimination through establishing and strengthening partnerships with all stakeholders, including persons or communities affected by the disease, Dr Adu-Krow told invitees.
Poisoned attitudes and leprosy have survived together for millennia. Dr Morris-Wilson pointed this out in her welcoming remarks by noting that lepers “are often excluded, and their human rights violated.”
Internationally, 37 per cent of people affected by leprosy believe the disease affects their right to work and a staggering 55 per cent believe that the disease is frequently used as grounds for ending their marriages. Making matters worse for them “there are also an unbelievably 157 laws in place that discriminate against people affected by leprosy,” Dr Morris-Wilson said.
Guyanese acceptance of people suffering with leprosy “must be complete if we want to fight against stigma, discrimination and prejudice,” Minister Volda Lawrence said.
Leprosy is a contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves, causing discolouration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities.