Leprosy is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium. It often leads to physical deformities such as lesions on skin especially the face, shortening and deformation of fingers and toes, etc which are the major causes of stigma against lepers in society. In spite of the disease being declared as eliminated from the country in 2005 (as the prevalence rates had fallen to less than 1 infection per 10,000 population), India still witnesses around 1.3 lac new cases each year and widespread stigma against lepers and their children.
The turnaround in India’s efforts to eradicate leprosy happened in 1983 when the Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) was introduced by the government and treatment was provided free of cost. The therapy combines three drugs to fight the infection and cure the patient. Also, early diagnosis and quick treatment have helped cure patients before they get affected by physical changes and disabilities.
Despite the success in attaining elimination status, leprosy attracts considerable stigma from the society. This is proved by the fact that 850 leprosy colonies still exist in India where even patients cured of leprosy continue to stay, primarily due to non acceptance by outside society. There are some cases where even the children in these colonies who don’t suffer from the disease face discrimination in schools. Apart from this, many laws in India even today are discriminatory against lepers which further reinforce the social stigma faced by them. For example, the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Special Marriages Act still consider leprosy to be a ground for divorce. The Indian Railways Act, 1989 permit segregation of people suffering from infectious diseases (which would include leprosy). In fact, even the recently legislated Juvenile Justice Care and Protection Act, 2000 provides for separate treatment of children suffering from leprosy.
As a first step towards eradicating the stigma attached to leprosy, Parliament should update all such regressive laws thereby stopping the state sponsored discrimination against lepers. Further, government with the help of civil society organizations and NGOs working in this field should spread awareness to clear the myths and misconceptions regarding leprosy.
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