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Archaic laws holding back leprosy eradication

In 2018, then-Union Health Minister J P Nadda promised the eradication of leprosy by the end of the year. This aim was clearly not achieved, with cases of leprosy seeming to be in resurgence. Now, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan has set about a far more realistic goal — the elimination of archaic laws forcing those with leprosy into the shadows.

The hand of a woman suffering from leprosy.

“Even though the disease is now fully curable, it is disturbing to learn that there still exist 108 discriminatory laws against persons affected by leprosy, including three Union and 105 state laws,” said Vardhan. “The National Leprosy Eradication Programme (NLEP) has achieved enormous success in leprosy control, particularly in the last four decades.” Despite successes, following the declaration of elimination in 2005, surveillance has been lacking, allowing for disease numbers to again begin to creep ever higher.

“A leprosy-affected person after treatment does not transmit the disease agent. Hence, there should be no justification for the continued stigmatization of persons affected by leprosy,” added Vardhan, noting that a multi-drug treatment is available free of charge at all government-run hospitals.

Despite the availability of treatment, disease cases are resurging, and claims of mass underreporting of disease numbers are common. Is this a result of laws creating stigma towards those with leprosy?

Under current laws, leprosy can form the legal grounds for discrimination and in some cases even restricting individuals from work, housing, social situations and education. Leprosy can in some cases even be considered grounds for divorce. 

This is all despite the disease being curable. In some instances, where people are less knowledgeable about the condition or where they are unaware that treatment is available, this can lead to them practically checking out of society.

Not only does this hinder their own capacity to recover, it is a thorn in the side of national attempts to control the disease. These individuals have a chance of infecting others, though through social stigma may simply become isolated. National figures are, however, likely to be inaccurate due to the likely numerous amount of people not revealing their disease status for fear of discrimination.

In order to solve the issue, treatment is not enough. Treatment has been available for some time and still leprosy is rife within the nation. To truly stand a chance of eradicating the disease, information must be provided regarding treatment options and archaic laws allowing the legitimisation of stigma must be removed.

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