Prejudice and Discrimination, the Uncured Ills of Leprosy

Por Mario Osava | BRASILIA

“The ambulance team refused to take my sick friend to the hospital because he had had Hanseniasis years before,” said Yohei Sasakawa, president of the Nippon Foundation, at one of the meetings held during his Jul. 1-10 visit to Brazil.

His friend was completely cured and had no visible effects of the disease, but in a small town everyone knows everything about their neighbours, he said.

This didn’t happen in a poor country, but in the U.S. state of Texas, only about 50 years ago, Sasakawa pointed out to underline the damage caused by the discrimination suffered by people affected by Hansen’s Disease, better known as leprosy, as well as those who have already been cured, and their families.

A preliminary agreement emerged from the dialogues held by the Japanese activist with members of the different branches of power in Brasilia, to hold a national meeting in 2020 to step up the fight against Hanseniasis and the discrimination and stigma faced by those affected by it and their families.

The idea is a conference with a political dimension, with the participation of national authorities, state governors and mayors, as well as a technical dimension, said Carmelita Ribeiro Coriolano, coordinator of the Health Ministry’s Hanseniasis Programme. The Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation will sponsor the event.

Brazil has the second highest incidence of Hansen’s Disease in the world, with 26.875 new cases in 2017, accounting for 12.75 percent of the world total, according to WHO. Only India has more new cases.

The government established a National Strategy to Combat Hanseniasis, for the period 2019-2022, in line with the global strategy outlined by the WHO in 2016.

Extensive training of the different actors involved in the treatment of the disease and plans at the state and municipal levels, tailored to local conditions, guide the efforts against Hansen’s Disease, focusing particularly on reducing cases that cause serious physical damage to children and on eliminating stigma and discrimination.

Before his visit to Brasilia, Sasakawa, who has already come to Brazil more than 10 times as part of his mission against Hansen’s Disease, toured the states of Pará and Maranhão to discuss with regional and municipal authorities the obstacles and the advances made, in two of the regions with the highest prevalence rate.

“In Brazil there is no lack of courses and training; the health professionals are sensitive and give special attention to Hanseniasis,” said Faustino Pinto, national coordinator of the Movement for the Reintegration of People Affected by Hanseniasis (MORHAN), who accompanied the Nippon Foundation delegation in Brasilia.

“Promoting early diagnosis, to avoid serious physical damage, and providing better information to the public and physical rehabilitation to ensure a better working life for patients” are the most necessary measures, he told IPS.

Pinto’s case illustrates the shortcomings in the health services. He was not diagnosed as being affected with Hansen’s Disease until the age of 18, nine years after he felt the first symptoms. It took five years of treatment to cure him, and he has serious damage to his hands and joints.

His personal plight and the defence of the rights of the ill, former patients and their families were outlined in his Jun. 27 presentation in Geneva, during a special meeting on the disease, parallel to the 41st session of the Human Rights Council, the highest organ of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Pinto is an eloquent advocate of the use of Hanseniasis or Hansen’s Disease, rather than leprosy, a term historically burdened with religious prejudice and stigma, which aggravates the suffering of patients and their families, but continues to be used by WHO, for example.

Discrimination against people with the disease dates back to biblical times, when it was seen as a punishment from God, said Sasakawa during his meeting with Minister Damares Alves, a Baptist preacher who describes herself as “extremely Christian”.

In India there are 114 laws that discriminate against current or former Hansen’s Disease patients, banning them from public transport or public places, among other “absurdities”, he said. (IPS)