Give leprosy-affected a chance (Jan 31 is World Leprosy Day)

January 31st, 2010 - 2:43 pm ICT by IANS  

By Ranjana Narayan
New Delhi, Jan 31 (IANS) “Maataji, Babuji, namastey, namastey!”, he greets people brightly at the traffic light, a smile lighting up his creased face. Kondasamy would be like any other beggar on Delhi’s roads, only his disfigured face and the stubs where his fingers once were, give him away as a leprosy patient, one among the hundreds in Delhi.

If Kondasamy, in his 30s, has ever been pained by noticing people shrink away when he puts out his disfigured hand for alms, then he has chosen to hide it behind his ever cheerful veneer.

“Tum ko uparwala banaye rakhe (may the almighty bless you),” he says in humble thanksgiving to anyone who gingerly drops a coin into the aluminium can - taking great care to ensure they do not touch the utensil - dangling from his wrist.

Kondasamy, who belongs to Bangalore, says he is cured of the contagious disease. “I am cured. I was cured 15 years ago,” Kondasamy told IANS.

Kondasamy begs for a living to feed his family - his wife, also a cured leprosy patient, and his two-year-old daughter, who does not have the disease. He stays at a Kusht Ashram (leprosy home) in south Delhi run by the government, where there are many others like him.

“Yes, we have doctors coming to check us and I take medicines,” he says. His wife stays at home to look after the child. Like Kondasamy, some of the other inmates of the ashram go out to beg.

In India, the recorded cases of leprosy have fallen from 57.6 per 1,000 people in 1980-81 to less than one per 10,000 in December 2005, which is considered the level of elimination by the health ministry as short of total eradication.

One can spot leprosy patients outside major temples in the capital, including the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place and the Sai Baba temple in south Delhi’s Lodhi Colony. They sit on wheelchairs, with their belongings - all stuffed into plastic packets hanging from the chair. The wheelchair is their home - come winter, summer or rain. For protection against inclement weather, they have a thick plastic sheet to cover themselves.

And on days when there is sufficient water, like when a pipe nearby has sprung a leak, one can see them squatting near the water source, soaping themselves and enjoying a bath, by the roadside.

Food is not a problem for them if they are positioned outside affluent temples. They often get to savour platterfuls of puri, halwa, aloo subzi - all distributed by the devout on special auspicious days - notably Tuesdays and Saturdays. On other days, they get enough alms to buy food.

Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) is caused by a bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae. According to the World Health Organisation, the bacillus multiplies very slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about five years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear. Leprosy is not highly infectious. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.

According to the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations (ILEP), a federation of 15 non-governmental anti-leprosy organisations, based in London, India currently has about 64 percent of all the new leprosy cases in the world, followed by Brazil with about 17 percent, then Indonesia with about 7 percent. Other countries reporting more than 1,000 new cases in 2006 include: Angola, Bangladesh, China, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

A cure for leprosy was identified in the form of Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) that came into wide use from 1982 following recommendations of WHO.

ILEP says: “Many of those cured of the disease will have to live with the consequences of leprosy. It is estimated that probably at least 3 million people are living with some permanent disability due to leprosy, although the exact figure is unknown.”

In the national capital, MESH (Maximising Employment to Serve the Handicapped), an NGO working with 40 groups of disabled and leprosy affected people for their rehabilitation, trains them in different craft skills.

The leprosy affected or their children are trained in weaving, designing, woodcraft and toy-making. The end products - elegant bedspreads, table linen, cloth bags, stuffed toys and cards are sold at their outlet in Delhi and Hyderabad.

MESH held an exhibition and sale of handicrafts made by leprosy affected people at their south Delhi outlet Saturday, and also screened a documentary “Towards Dawn”.

For those keen to help out, MESH has an outlet in south Delhi - No.5, Local Shopping Centre, Uday Park, New Delhi. It can be contacted at 26965039/26568048. Its email: mesh@del6.vsnl.net.in.

(Ranjana Narayan can be contacted at ranjana.n@ians.in )

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