Context: About 7,000 leprosy cases reported in the last decade in Punjab.
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- In 2018, the state’s average child leprosy rate was more than the national average of 9 percent.
- Even after four decades of the launch of the National Leprosy Eradication Programme, the disease has refused to die down in the state.
- About 7,000 cases were reported in the state in the past 10 years.
- On the national level, Punjab falls in the category of a ‘low endemic’ state in terms of the prevalence of leprosy. Nevertheless, the disease has not been eradicated.
- In all, 6,897 cases were reported between 2009 and 2019 in the state. Out of these, 1,054 were of Punjabi population.
- Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis.
- Affected Organs: Skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes. Leprosy is known to occur at all ages.
- Leprosy is curable and early treatment averts most disabilities. But if left untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
- Transmission: The exact mechanism is not known. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth.
- India was officially declared to have eliminated leprosy in 2005 when new cases fell to less than 1 per 10,000 (as per WHO criteria), yet India still accounts for the largest number of leprosy affected people in the world (60 per cent).
- India, Indonesia, Brazil are among the main countries where leprosy is prevalent.
Key Challenges in Tackling Leprosy in India
- Undetected new cases: As per the report published in Down to Earth magazine, the reporting of new cases of Leprosy has been made voluntary after 2005.
- Government’s negligence in monitoring the spread: Post-2005, the Indian government became lax in terms of policies and funding once the leprosy free status was achieved. It led to re-emergence of leprosy in India.
- State National Leprosy Eradication Programme units have become diluted with the inclusion of leprosy into the public health programme.
- Use of the term “elimination” also leads to confusion with “eradication” among general public and even among the medical practitioners.
- Social and Psychological: Early detection and early cure can help in eradication but cases are unreported due to fear and stigma associated with Leprosy. Thus, it is also a human rights issue.
- Economic: Discrimination due to myths and misunderstanding that the disease is highly contagious. E.g. employment.
- Medical: Lack of awareness about its cure and since 1982, same 3 drugs used in therapy for leprosy which increase the chances of emerge of resistance against the disease.
- Legal challenges: Existence of more than 250 obsolete health related laws in central and state level. E.g. The 1898 Lepers Act that was recently repealed. Many States in India prohibit leprosy patients from running in local elections and deny them employment privileges and benefits.
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