Leprosy makes a quiet comeback in India

Published: 2011-05-31 11:06:24
Author: Rick Westhead

  KOLKATA, INDIA—When friends, neighbours and even his four children ask rickshaw driver Muhammad Ali about his bandaged left foot, he doesn’t miss a beat.

“I hurt it in a road accident,” he swiftly replies.

Ali, a straw-thin 40-year-old, says he’s too afraid to tell anyone that he has leprosy and that his condition is so advanced that two of his toes have fallen off, a painful development known as “auto amputation.”

While doctors have warned Ali that his disease could spread to his children if he doesn’t wear the surgical mask they’ve given him, Ali keeps it tucked away at home.

He says if his neighbours discover that he has leprosy, which people in most corners of the world still consider a biblical-era plague, his family would be chased from their home in Kolkata’s modest Chitpur neighbourhood.

Ali is hardly the only one with such a secret in Chitpur’s grimy streets.

Six years after the World Health Organization and India declared victory over leprosy, announcing it was no longer a pubic health threat here, doctors say it’s still impossible to say exactly how many people suffer from leprosy.

Much like HIV, leprosy carries a longstanding social stigma and many leprosy sufferers ignore the tell-tale symptom of numbness that typically leads to more advanced leprosy, says Dr. Alokananda Ghosh.

“When people find out someone has leprosy, they typically say ‘get out,’ ” says Ghosh, an official with the aid organization Calcutta Rescue, which treats leprosy patients. Ghosh estimates there could be more than 200,000 lepers in West Bengal alone.

People for centuries have been spooked by leprosy.

In severe cases, the disease attacks the ulnar nerve, also known as the funny bone, and can lead to bones shortening and fusing together, a condition doctors call mitten hands. It can also cause blindness and blotch the skin.

In the Middle Ages, lepers were given a bell and ordered to ring it wherever they went as warning to others of their presence.

Even today, lepers are shunned.