By Sharmain Cornette
Under the theme ‘Fighting a Just Cause’ World Leprosy Day is being observed internationally today with a view of reducing stigma and discrimination directed to persons that have been diagnosed with the infectious disease.
And this wanton scorn for persons infected with this disease popularly known as the ‘numb spot disease’ has been known since biblical days. It is perhaps because of the belief of olden days that persons diagnosed with Leprosy are to this day treated as outcasts.
Though not overwhelmed with leprosy cases, the local health sector continues to see its fair share amounting to about 25 to 30 new cases per year. At least this is according to the sole Leprologist (specialist in the field of Leprology —the science and study of leprosy)) within the system, Dr Holly Alexander.
During an exclusive interview with this newspaper she revealed that 29 new cases were recorded last year. In fact she disclosed that the incidence of the disease is about 0.4 per 10,000 population.
Leprosy, as an infectious disease is spread via the respiratory route similar to influenza-type illnesses. However, according to Dr Alexander, a person can only contract the disease if they are exposed over a prolonged period to a person infected with a severe strain of the disease.
Having been involved in Leprology for the past 29 years, Dr Alexander revealed that after being diagnosed with Leprosy, many persons were simply transported to the Mahaica Leprosarium where they remained without any friend or family visitation. And it was in order to reduce the scourge associated with the disease.
Dr Alexander disclosed, that the Leprosy Control Clinic, located within The Palms compound, was established, allowing infected persons to access treatment during dermatology clinics.
It was in 1994 that she took up the reigns of the facility which was previously manned by, Dr Ruth Benjamin-Huntley.
“We had to do the clinic because of the stigma attached to leprosy. As it is, I see skin patients and among them I see my leprosy patients.” And it isn’t a risky undertaking at all, Dr Alexander noted even as she disclosed that she is sometimes personally pressured as she is tasked with overseeing 14 dermatology clinics every month that are located across the country.
This, she said, is essential in order to be able to detect new cases of leprosy.
Treatment, she said, is made available through the World Health Organisation, which is passed on to patients free of cost. Dr Alexander also facilitates emergency response which could see her travelling from one end of the country to another within a day if a patient develops a complication.
“It would have been nice if all of the doctors were trained to deal with these cases but that is not the reality,” the leprologist laments.
The vigilant effort to address the leprosy situation is directly linked to the fact that the disease, once treated, is curable. “We have reached the point where we should accept leprosy as any other disease. People get diabetes, tuberculosis, hypertension and they also get leprosy. The good news is that there is a cure for leprosy,” Dr Alexander asserted.
Leprosy, according to the leprologist is classified in two groups – mild or severe types. The mild type she said requires treatment over a six-month period while those infected with the severe type undergo a two-year treatment. After the recommended treatment time ends, laboratory tests are carried out to verify whether there are still bacteria associated with the disease still in the body.
The horrific aspect of the disease is that although the bacteria have been eliminated from the body it can still cause deformities. Among the known deformities are the clubbing of the hand and ulcers that do not heal.
The latter often results because of the numbness that occurs in an infected person’s hands and feet which causes them to not feel if they walk on a tack or is burnt while cooking.
It has also been deduced that leprosy is the seventh highest cause of blindness in the world. “We have had patients who had gone blind but lucky for some it was cataract so they are now seeing again. But right now we have some that are blind at the Leprosarium.”
According to Dr Alexander, the public must become aware that once they have a numb spot they should seek medical attention. Any numb spot she said can be checked with a pin or pen to determine if there is any sensation there.
Additionally, the disease can present as bumps or a rough surface and is known to have a copper colour. “If that spot is in an area that has hair no hair would grow on it. Even when you are sweating that spot will remain dry,” Dr Alexander added.
And in order to mark the 57th observance of World Leprosy Day, efforts will be made to raise awareness about the disease through an entire week of activities, commencing today. Starting with the attendance of a church service today, staffers of the Leprosy Control Clinic will seek to solicit prayers for those infected with the disease.
The week of activities will continue on Tuesday with a spot check and information dissemination session at the Mackenzie Bus Park in Linden. The remainder of the activities, including general consultation clinics, lectures and workshops on care and prevention of disabilities for patients, will be hosted at the Leprosy Control Clinic.
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