Leprosy was declared eliminated in India in 2005, yet the number of disease cases appear to be rising. Leprosy, if left untreated, can ruin lives. However, stigma, much like the disease itself, is also capable of inflicting severe damage to the wellbeing and dignity of the sufferer.
The number of new infections in India has furthered alarm that the disease may be showing signs of a resurgence. A total of 90,709 cases of leprosy were recorded across the 2017-18 period. This is a slight increase compared to the 86,147 recorded cases in 2013-14.
With the disease potentially resurging, it is likely that as it becomes more well-known to the public, fears surrounding leprosy may mount. This could lead to already existing stigmas becoming more widespread, leaving those suffering from the disease again isolated, despite legislation attempting to end discrimination.
Livemint tells the story of 52-year-old Ashok, who lives in Kasturba Gram in Delhi, one of India’s 750 leprosy colonies. At the age of ten, Ashok lived in Munger, Bihar. His childhood was a normal one in many respects. He played sports and swam with his friends in the River Ganga. Technically minded – always interested in how implements such as plumbing equipment and electric appliances worked – Ashok developed the aim of joining the Army. To further this ambition, he accrued technical skills on his visits to the gun factory near his home.
Then, one day in school, his teacher noticed discoloured patches on Ashok’s back and sent a letter to the boy’s father. From that moment on, his life altered.
Ashok’s teacher sent a letter to his father. “My entire family started to cry when they read the letter,” recalls Ashok “My father told me I had kushth rog (leprosy), the disease that the beggars who would come asking for money to our home, with disfigured limbs, had. I was shocked.”
As soon as it became known that Ashok was suffering from leprosy, he became isolated. His friends would not spend time with him and the pastimes of sports and swimming he once enjoyed were taken from him, as were his ambitions of joining the Army. Such was his despair he attempted suicide, being spared when he was rescued by boatmen.
Delayed treatment meant Ashok developed deformities in his hands. For many years this severely impacted his ability to find work, with many suggesting his only option was to beg. After being treated in West Bengal, Ashok found employment in Delhi. Today, Ashok is a plumber and electrician who services several schools, offices and homes in Dilshad Garden, and serves as the vice-president of the Residents Welfare Association of Kasturba Gram.
If leprosy is not adequately monitored and treated, many more people across India could find themselves victim to the disease. Ashok’s story, though eventually culminating in him working towards a normal life, highlights the mental health and economic impacts that may be the future of countless individuals if nothing is done to curb a resurgence of leprosy in India.